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April 20, 2014 12:52 PM Must-read of the day: Tom Frank on why we don’t want a plutocracy — even a liberal, “benevolent” one

By Kathleen Geier

Yesterday, when I wrote about a White House gathering of young billionaire philanthropists, I did so with a healthy dose of snark. However, I didn’t make an argument about the many things that are terribly wrong with government-by-billionaire. But if you’re interested in reading such an argument, you’re in luck. Tom Frank has written one that was posted at Salon.com today, and it’s excellent.

In his piece, Frank makes a smart historical analogy between today’s reformist billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, and the sanctimonious “Mugwumps” the nineteenth century:

During the nineteenth century, a long string of saintly aristocrats fought to reform the state and also to adjust the habits and culture of working-class people. These two causes were the distinctive obsessions of the wealthy liberals of the day: government must be purified, and working people must learn to behave. They had to be coerced into giving up bad habits. They had to learn the ways of thrift and hard work. There had to be sin taxes. Temperance. Maybe even prohibition.
On the single greatest issue of the time, however, these sanctimonious reformers were of no use at all. They were in favor of clean government, to be sure, but when it came to organized money’s war on the world, which was then bringing impoverishment and industrial combat and dislocations of every description, they were indistinguishable from the most stalwart conservatives. Describing the patrician “Mugwump type,” the historian Richard Hofstadter writes,
[T]he most serious abuses of the unfolding economic order of the Gilded Age he either resolutely ignored or accepted complacently as an inevitable result of the struggle for existence or the improvidence and laziness of the masses. As a rule, he was dogmatically committed to the prevailing theoretical economics of laissez faire… . He imagined that most of the economic ills that were remediable at all could be remedied by free trade, just as he believed that the essence of government lay in honest dealing by honest and competent men.
If that description hits uncomfortably close to home, well, good. We’ve returned to the Gilded Age, laissez-faire is common sense again, and Victorian levels of inequality are back. The single greatest issue of then is the single greatest issue of now, and once again people like Bloomberg—a modern-day Mugwump if ever there was one—have nothing useful to say about it, other than to remind us when it’s time to bow before the mighty. Oh, Bloomberg could be relentless in his mayoral days in his quest for sin taxes, for random police authority, for campaigns against sugary soda and trans fats. But put a “living wage” proposal on his desk, and he would denounce it as a Soviet-style interference in private affairs.

I like Frank’s parallel of the moralism between plutocrats then and now — his comparison of the temperance movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the anti-Big Gulp crusades today is a particularly inspired touch. His point that wealthy reformers both today and in the past conveniently ignore the most important issue of all — economic inequality — is also a crucial one. It reminds me of a great quote by economist Branko Milanovic, one of the world’s leading authorities on global economic inequality:

I was in a think tank in Washington. The president of the think tank told me: “Well, you can do whatever you want, but just don’t call it inequality. Put the word poverty there. Because we have many rich people on our board, and when they see the word poverty that makes them feel good, because [it means] they’re really nice people who care about the poor. When they see the word inequality it makes them upset, because [it means] you want to take money from them.”

This section from the Tom Frank essay is very good as well:

To say that there is no solidarity in this form of liberalism is to state the obvious. This is not about standing with you, it is about disciplining you: moving you out of the desirable neighborhoods, stopping and frisking you, prodding you to study the right things. Or, at its very noblest, it is about enlisting you in some fake “grassroots” effort whose primary purpose is to demonstrate the supreme moral virtue of the neo-Mugwump who’s funding the thing—to foam the runway for him as he makes his final approach to Heaven International Airport.

The closing sentences of Frank’s piece are also spot-on:

But I can’t help but suspect that the Bloombergs of the world have the whole thing upside down. That the way to improve a place—or to get folks to eat better food—actually starts with proper pay for the people who live there. And that this antiquated form of organizing, in which the disenfranchised come together to help one another, is the only truly promising way to avoid the disasters of the last Gilded Age.

What it comes down to, very simply, is whether you prefer democracy or aristocracy. I thought we settled that question long ago. But perhaps it will never ago away.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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