Bill Moyers: With Our Democracy Corrupted By Big Money, America Is Now Acting As A Plutocracy

At a speech given on October 29 at Boston University, as a part of the Howard Zinn Lecture Series, Bill Moyers spoke passionately about rising inequality in this country.  He condemned what he called a deliberate “wage repression” that has impoverished many Americans.  He said that American democracy is being overwhelmed and unfairly manipulated by a “plutocracy,” that has commandeered the political system and is unfairly squeezing the poor and middle classes in order to produce greater profits.

Moyers said, “The Gilded Age returned with a vengeance in our time. It slipped in quietly at first, back in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan began a massive decades-long transfer of national wealth to the rich.”

Moyers compared today’s political corruption of big money dominance to the system used by Mark Hanna to elect William McKinley. He said Carl Rove’s goal is to be the Mark Hanna of today.

Moyers reports, “Donors are laundering their cash through front groups with highfalutin’ names like American Crossroads. That’s one of the two slush funds controlled by Karl Rove in his ambition to revive the era of the robber barons. Promise me you won’t laugh when I tell you that although Rove and the powerful Washington lobbyist who is his accomplice described the first organization as ‘grassroots’, 97% of its initial contributions came from four billionaires.

Moyers speech, embedded below, with Q/A, is about two hours long.  It’s worth listening to. His address is 8000 words and I’ve excerpted only a fraction — about 1800 words —  below:

  • Between 2001 and 2008, about 40,000 US manufacturing plants closed. Six million factory jobs have disappeared over the past dozen years, representing one in three manufacturing jobs.
  • The new BMW plant that recently opened (in South Carolina) advertised that the company would hire one thousand workers. …They will be paid $15 an hour – about half of what BMW workers earn in Germany.  In polite circles, among our political and financial classes, this is known as “the free market at work.” No, it’s “wage repression,” and it’s been happening in our country since around 1980.
  • From 1950 through 1980, the share of all income in America going to everyone but the rich increased from 64 percent to 65 percent. Because the nation’s economy was growing handsomely, the average income for 9 out of l0 Americans was growing, too – from $17,719 to $30,941. That’s a 75 percent increase in income in constant 2008 dollars.
  • Since 1980 the economy has also continued to grow handsomely, but only a fraction at the top have benefitted. The line flattens for the bottom 90% of Americans. Average income went from that $30,941 in 1980 to $31,244 in 2008. Think about that: the average income of Americans increased just $303 dollars in 28 years. That’s wage repression.
  • Hear the chief economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Ethan Harris, who told the Times: “There’s no question that there is an income shift going on in the economy. Companies are squeezing their labor costs to build profits.”
  • The chief economist for Credit Suisse in New York, Neal Soss: As companies have wrung more savings out of their work forces, causing wages and salaries barely to budge from recession lows, “profits have staged a vigorous recovery, jumping 40 percent between late 2008 and the first quarter of 2010.”
  • So the answer to the question: “Do the Rich Need the Rest of America?” is as stark as it is ominous: Many don’t. As they form their own financial culture increasingly separated from the fate of everyone else.
  • You would think the rich might care, if not from empathy, then from reading history. Ultimately gross inequality can be fatal to civilization. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist Jared Diamond writes about how governing elites throughout history isolate and delude themselves until it is too late.
  • Now, most people know what plutocracy is: the rule of the rich, political power controlled by the wealthy. Plutocracy is not an American word and wasn’t meant to become an American phenomenon – some of our founders deplored what they called “the veneration of wealth.” But plutocracy is here, and a pumped up Citigroup even boasted of coining a variation on the word— “plutonomy”, which describes an economic system where the privileged few make sure the rich get richer and that government helps them do it. Five years ago Citigroup decided the time had come to “bang the drum on plutonomy.”
  • As for the rest of the country: Listen to this summary in The Economist – no Marxist journal – of a study by Pew Research: More than half of all workers today have experienced a spell of unemployment, taken a cut in pay or hours or been forced to go part-time. The typical unemployed worker has been jobless for nearly six months. Collapsing share and house prices have destroyed a fifth of the wealth of the average household. Nearly six in ten Americans have canceled or cut back on holidays. About a fifth say their mortgages are underwater. One in four of those between 18 and 29 have moved back in with their parents.
  • Socrates said to understand a thing, you must first name it. The name for what’s happening to our political system is corruption – a deep, systemic corruption. I urge you to seek out the recent edition of Harper’s Magazine. The former editor Roger D. Hodge brilliantly dissects how democracy has gone on sale in America.
  • The article is excerpted from Hodge’s new book, The Mendacity of Hope. In it he describes how America’s founding generation especially feared the kind of corruption that occurs when the private ends of a narrow faction succeed in capturing the engines of government. James Madison and many of his contemporaries knew this kind of corruption could consume the republic.
  • Mark Hanna tapped the banks, the insurance companies, the railroads and the other industrial trusts of the late 1800s for all the money it took to make William McKinley governor of Ohio and then President of the United States.
  • McKinley’s opponent in the l896 election was the Democrat-Populist candidate, William Jennings Bryan, whose base consisted of aroused populists – the remnant of the People’s Party…. Because Bryan threatened those big economic interests he was able to raise only one-tenth the money that Mark Hanna raised for McKinley, and he lost: Money in politics is an old story.
  • Hanna and McKinley saw to it that first Ohio and then Washington were “ruled by business…by bankers, railroads, and public utility corporations.” The United States Senate was infamous as “a millionaire’s club.” City halls, state houses and even courtrooms were bought and sold like baubles. Instead of enforcing the rules of fair play, government served as valet to the plutocrats.
  • Conservatives of the day – pro-corporate apologists – hijacked the vocabulary of Jeffersonian liberalism and turned words like “progress,” “opportunity,” and “individualism” into tools for making the plunder of America sound like divine right.  As one of the plutocrats crowed: “We are rich. We own America. We got it, God knows how, but we intend to keep it.”
  • The Gilded Age returned with a vengeance in our time. It slipped in quietly at first, back in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan began a “massive decades-long transfer of national wealth to the rich.” As Roger Hodge makes clear, under Bill Clinton the transfer was even more dramatic, as the top 10 percent captured an ever-growing share of national income. The trend continued under George W. Bush – those huge tax cuts for the rich, remember, which are now about to be extended because both parties have been bought off by the wealthy – and by 2007 the wealthiest 10% of Americans were taking in 50% of the national income. Today, a fraction of people at the top today earn more than the bottom 120 million Americans.
  • This vast inequality is not the result of Adam Smith’s invisible hand; it did not just happen; it was no accident. As Hodge drives home, it is the result of a long series of policy decisions “about industry and trade, taxation and military spending, by flesh-and-blood humans sitting in concrete-and-steel buildings.” And those policy decisions were paid for by the less than one percent who participate in our capitalist democracy political contributions.
  • Big business political action committees flooded the political arena with a deluge of dollars. They funded think tanks that churned out study after study with results skewed to their ideology and interests. And their political allies in the conservative movement cleverly built alliances with the religious right – Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition – who zealously waged a cultural holy war that camouflaged the economic assault on working people and the middle class.
  • The plutocrats who soaked up all the money now say the deficits require putting Social Security and other public services on the chopping block. You might think that Mr. Bush today would regret having invaded Iraq on false pretenses at a cost of more than a trillion dollars and counting, but no, just last week he said that his biggest regret was his failure to privatize Social Security. With over l00 Republicans of the House having signed a pledge to do just that when the new Congress convenes, Mr. Bush’s vision may yet be realized.
  • Once again the plutocracy is buying off the system. Nearly $4 billion is being spent on the congressional races that will be decided next week, including multi millions coming from independent tax-exempt organizations that can collect unlimited amounts without revealing the sources. The organization Public Citizen reports that just 10 groups are responsible for the bulk of the spending by independent groups: “
  • Donors are laundering their cash through front groups with highfalutin’ names like American Crossroads. That’s one of the two slush funds controlled by Karl Rove in his ambition to revive the era of the robber barons. Promise me you won’t laugh when I tell you that although Rove and the powerful Washington lobbyist who is his accomplice described the first organization as “grassroots”, 97% of its initial contributions came from four billionaires.
  • We have reached what the new chairman of Common Cause and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls “the perfect storm that threatens American democracy: an unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top; a record amount of secret money, flooding our democracy; and a public becoming increasingly angry and cynical about a government that’s raising its taxes, reducing its services, and unable to get it back to work. We’re losing our democracy to a different system. It’s called plutocracy.”
  • It turns out that many of the ads being paid for secretly by anonymous donors are “false, grossly misleading, or marred with distortions,” as Greg Sargent reports in his website “The Plum Line.” Go to Sargent’s site and you’ll see a partial list of ads that illustrate the scope of the intellectual and political fraud being perpetrated in front of our eyes. Money from secret sources is poisoning the public mind with toxic information in order to dupe voters into giving even more power to the powerful.
  • Whatever happened to “compassionate conservatism?” The Affordable Care Act – whatever its flaws – extends health care coverage to over 40 million deprived Americans who would otherwise be uncovered. What is it about these people – the Thomases, the secret donors, the privileged plutocrats on their side – that they can’t embrace a little social justice where it counts – among everyday people struggling to get by in a dog-eat-dog world? Health care coverage could mean the difference between life and death for them.
  • Everyone knows millions of Americans are in trouble. … Why isn’t government working for them? Because it’s been bought off. It’s as simple as that. And until we get clean money we’re not going to get clean elections, and until we get clean elections, you can kiss goodbye government of, by, and for the people. Welcome to the plutocracy.
  • Obviously Howard Zinn would not have us leave it there. Defeat was never his counsel. … So what are we to do about Big Money in politics buying off democracy? I can almost hear him throwing that question back at us: “What are we to do? ORGANIZE! Yes, organize—and don’t count the costs.”
  • What’s promising in all this is that in taking on Big Money we’re talking about something more than a single issue. We’re talking about a broad-based coalition to restore American democracy – one that is trying to be smart about the nuts-and-bolts of building a coalition, remembering that it has a lot to do with human nature.

  • Watch this video on YouTube

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6 Responses to Bill Moyers: With Our Democracy Corrupted By Big Money, America Is Now Acting As A Plutocracy

  1. Rick says:

    This is a one-sided hit piece, Mike, as it ignores the enormous sums of money pour into Democrat coffers by unions. In this last election they poured in hundreds of millions of dollars. In addition, the uber rich tend very strongly to be Democrats. Guys like Soros and others pour in gazillions of dollars through various front groups. In addition the drive by media provide hundreds of millions of dollars worth of campaign ads in the form of slanted news coverage. Moyers is highly partisan.

    Moyers states, “Everyone knows millions of Americans are in trouble. … Why isn’t government working for them? Because it’s been bought off. It’s as simple as that.” Well, no, it is not as simple as that. The federal government is not authorized to do all these social justice things. Yes, I know, it has been involved for a long time. Just because the federal government (including both parties, the Executive Branch, Judicial Branch, and especially the legislative branch) has been violating the Constitution does not mean, at the very least, that it should create new and greater violations.

    Now if you want to see an example of bipartisanship, look at the President’s Budget Commission report. That Commission co-chaired by Allan Simpson and Erskin Bowles, touch many “third rails” of both liberals and conservatives.

  2. Stan Hirtle says:

    Moyers is certainly correct, even if there are the occasional “liberal” rich people like Soros, and even if unions tried to get in on the game with money they were still priced out of the market and didn’t get much back for what they gave, particularly changing the rules that lets employers drag out union elections and get rid of the people they want. And if they lose a labor law case occasionally, the penalties are just a small cost of doing business they will gladly pay. Unions’ biggest problems is that owners just move the manufacturing jobs away from them, leaving only sedentary jobs like government, education and health care.

    Conservatives are now attacking the benefits of unionized government workers because so few private sector workers have them. It is not easy to see how people “organizing” is going to deal with the huge wealth advantage. The Supreme Court, a hard nut to crack politically, has now committed to the idea that the right to dominate the democratic process is “free speech.” Big money political campaigns are dominated by negative television ads that generate mistrust. The big problem is that the concerns of ordinary people are priced out of the political market. Sure some rich people lose elections, but few who are not rich or do not serve the rich win.

    Perhaps more ominous is that the traditional weapon of the workers, cultural solidarity, has also been given away. The rich may fight each other (often in high cost lawsuits or in political battles like health care reform) but they stick together when their common interests are at stake. Ordinary people do not stick together, often becoming judgmental and blaming of people like themselves. Look how little solidarity there is about helping prevent people from losing their homes in foreclosure, compared to past foreclosure crises like the thirties, or even those involving farms. Look at the comments in news blogs when these subjects are talked about.

    We also have electronic communities, things like talk media but also niche internet sites, and those have proven malleable. There are few if any union radio stations any more, and more of the news media is supposed to contribute to a corporate bottom line. Thus the media was able to generate anger and envy against liberal elites rather than conservative or capitalist ones. To some extent, while the word democracy is honored in theory, in practice what was once valued and respected isn’t any longer. However it does seem that the skewing of the division of wealth between the richest and the everyone else can not help but make the lives of everyone else worse.

  3. Mike Bock says:

    Rick, we need to remember the constitution as orginally written is not the constitution that we have today. A progressive income tax designed to facilitate the redistribution of wealth would have horrified the founding fathers, but, it is constitutional today. The founding fathers would have been horrified that women or non-property owners or 18 year olds could have the right to vote, but such voting rights are now constitutional. The founding fathers would agree with you that “the federal government is not authorized to do all these social justice things,” but, the fact is, our constitution today is quite different from its original form, and the federal government, in fact, is authorized to do social justice things and at one time, by following the constitution, congress made the top income tax rate 90% — in a deliberate attempt to “soak the rich” as a means to help the poor.

    I can’t agree that “Moyers is highly partisan.” Certainly not in the sense that Carl Rove or Mitch McConnell are highly partisan — bound to a particular political party and willing to lie and distort in order to achieve partisan victories. Of course there are Democrats who are partisan as well. But Moyers, to me, is not partisan in that sense. Moyers does have a strong and well developed point of view. He’s been around a long time. His POV is based on a very thorough knowledge base and progressive principles and, I believe, journalistic honesty.

    I don’t think it is accurate that his is “a one-sided hit piece.” I think Moyers would agree that the Democratic Party is also under sway of the big money of the plutocracy.

    Stan, you write: It is not easy to see how people “organizing” is going to deal with the huge wealth advantage.

    I agree, but, it seems we need to keep coming back to Robert Kennedy’s, and other’s, challenge to not simply see the world as it is, but as how it can and should be. We need to imagine a vitalized democracy — a grassroots democracy in the place where we live and vote.

    People power has won out against money, oligarchic power many times throughout history and people power can win again. Our political parties are corrupt and are part of the problem. We must transcend political parties and create authentic community. This, of course, is exhausting to consider — the huge amount of effort and cooperation that is needed to make our democracy work — but I want to believe it is possible. I hope we don’t have to descend to a public crisis of unrest and/or violence before people begin to take their obligations to democracy to heart.

    You write, “Ordinary people do not stick together, often becoming judgmental and blaming of people like themselves.”

    I agree. My thinking is that people in an authentic community stick together. The deterioration of the lives or ordinary people, I believe, stems from a lack of community. Again, the challenge is to create authentic community and a good response to that challenge, I believe, is to show leadership and practice leadership at the grassroots level. Such thinking was what motivated me to run for the Kettering School Board last year,

  4. Rick says:

    Mike, you speak of authentic community. However, let’s face it, you and I can never be part of the same community. So dos that mean the majority of an authentic community get to dictate to the minority.

  5. Stan Hirtle says:

    Rick, what do you mean you and Mike can never be part of the same community? You are part of the same comunity, although maybe you won’t be part of the same political party or faction of a political party. We have a society with a lot of diversity in it. It is probably going to have people with different political ideas. Even despite the “big sort” where people are choosing to live around and associating with people like themselves, the diversity is unlikely to go away and many kinds of Balkanization are practically impossible to being about. Plus generally there are some good ideas on the other side, some not so good on your own side and a lot no one has thought of. Places where everyone thinks alike don’t seem to do as well. There are a lot of people who seem emotionally committed to dumping on people who disagree, many but not all on the conservative side of the political spectrum, and who can articulate all kinds of grievances. Much of our issues seem to involve emotional states as well as ideas.

  6. Mike Bock says:

    Rick — I’ve responded in a new post that suggests community can emerge if we focus on the big picture. In some sense, we form a type of community here at DaytonOS in our comments and reactions to each other. My goal is to attempt to make a more formalized community for anyone interested — with goals similar to those of the League of Women Voters. And my goal is to form a community of people who are interested in improving — transforming is my hope — public education. So, yes, I can see we could work together in such communities.

    Stan — thanks for your comments. I think your observation is true: “Much of our issues seem to involve emotional states as well as ideas.”

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