America's Cancer Within: Billionaires... And The Politicians They Own

A cure... by Nancy Ohanian

In an essay this morning for the New Republic, Timothy Noah contended, with a certain degree of glee-- that Republicans are accidentally suppressing their own voters-- rich, old, white people. The GOP rush to restrict voting by mail, he wrote, "will likely harm Republican candidates more than Democratic ones... The very idea would drive a game theoretician mad. But the Republicans’ drive to rig elections in their favor-- which extends back two decades-- turns out, hilariously, to be yet another GOP tradition that’s being undermined by the delusions of Donald Trump."

According to the Brennan Center, at least 16 of the 22 newly enacted state laws restricting access to the vote would restrict mail-in balloting through various types of petty harassment: shortening the period during which a voter is permitted to request a mail-in ballot, shortening the amount of time a voter has to deliver his or her ballot, limiting the number of voters who are automatically entitled to mail-in ballots, cutting back on available assistance to mail-in voters, and so on. Mail-in restrictions have been enacted in 12 of the 14 states that have limited ballot access since January 1. By comparison, only eight of those 14 states limited in-person voting. In the disenfranchisement café, curbing mail-in ballots is this month’s special.
Why should that be? Because Trump is absolutely obsessed with mail-in voting. Before he deleted his “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” blog this week (archived here), Trump wrote that Georgia’s draconian new disenfranchisement law was “far too weak and soft.” The very first reason he gave was that the law failed to eliminate “no-excuse, widespread mass Mail-In Voting.”
...In truth, Trump lost because (among other reasons) he failed to encourage his base to vote by mail. Only about one-third of Trump voters voted by mail, as compared to nearly 60 percent of Biden voters, according to the Pew Research Center. This makes no sense: If anything, more Trump voters should have voted by mail, because Trump voters were older, and older people were the likeliest age demographic to vote by mail. Trump voters were also whiter, and white people were much more likely to vote by mail than Black people. And Trump voters were richer, and rich people were much more likely to vote by mail than people who weren’t rich.
This outcome was not exactly unforeseen. As far back as July, many Republicans were warning that Trump’s war on mail-in balloting would cost him Republican votes. Trump failed to listen and lost; yet now that Trump’s been proven wrong, Republicans are falling in line to limit mail-in balloting. Do anything else, and you’ll anger Trump loyalists, and maybe even the Chief himself.
How do we know Trump was an idiot to oppose mail-in ballots? (I mean, apart from the fact that Trump himself voted by mail in both the Florida primary and the general?) Because in April the Census released some data that demonstrated precisely how costly that opposition proved to be.
...Old people... tend to vote Republican. In 2020, the only two age groups that Trump won, according to exit polls, were those aged 65 and older and those aged 50-64; younger voters had no use for Trump. That made it extremely important for Trump to maximize his geriatric advantage. But by disparaging mail-in balloting, Trump dumped all over the voting method used in 2020 by nearly 54 percent of voters aged 65 and older, according to census data. Over-65s were the only age group to cast the majority of its votes by mail. (The other age groups cast only 39 or 40 percent of their votes by mail.)
In addition to being very old, people who vote Republican are very white. In 2020, Trump won the white vote by 58 to 41 percent, while losing the Black vote by 87 to 12 percent. But a much higher proportion of white people voted by mail (about 43 percent) than Black people (about 35 percent).
Rich people tend to vote Republican. In 2020, Trump won voters who earn $100,000 by 54 to 42 percent. But according to the census data, as voters move up the income scale, they become more likely to vote by mail, not less. Among people making $150,000 and over, almost 48 percent voted by mail-- more than any other income group.
It’s doubtful that the Republican legislators and governors pushing restrictions on vote by mail are completely unaware that they’re discouraging key Republican constituencies from voting at all. It doesn’t matter. At the moment, the GOP’s overriding imperative is to appease and flatter Trump by yielding to his partisan fixations, never mind their ineptitude. Amid this plague of troubling voter disenfranchisement bills, there’s a ray of hope in that.

Now, when it comes to the super-rich, like actual billionaires, do they even vote at all? I suspect not. I mean, there are probably some outliers, but I have a feeling billionaires don't really vote, and certainly not at a public polling station. It's not a big demographic... like somewhere between 600 and 700 of them in the U.S. (not necessarily counting wives and kids). If they were all lined up against a wall and shot, how would it change the outcome of an election? Well, even if they all voted (instead of say 10 of them), 600-700 votes doesn't even mean anything in a presidential election. But, that isn't to say they don't have some influence. You know who pays for all those annoying TV, radio and social media ads, right?

But beyond that, about a week ago, Umair Haque penned an interesting essay about the role of billionaires in our country. His well-grounded contention is that billionaires are making America a poor country. The opposite of trickle down? Keep in mind that Haque considers the U.S. a failed state. And he blames, at least in part, billionaires.

"America’s billionaires," he wrote, "now hold so much wealth [$5 trillion] that it’s now more than 20% of GDP. He shows how that underpins that story of "how a nation, even one as rich and powerful as America, can fall into poverty and ruin, and become a failed state." 20% of GDP is also how much America puts toward public investment. It’s roughly the amount Americans invest in things like healthcare, retirement, schools, education, childcare-- all of it. Billionaires now have more wealth than America invests in itself, collectively... America has one of the world’s lowest rates of public expenditure as a percent of GDP. Public investment makes up just 20% of it’s economy, compared to about 50% in Europe and Canada. If we subtract defence spending, then America’s level of public investment drops to about 15%-- less than a third of what Europe and Canada spend. Because America, as a society, invests a third as a percent of its economy that Canada and Europe do is why Americans live such abysmally poor lives. Investing 15% of your entire economy isn’t enough. To what? To give people things like healthcare, retirement, education, childcare, even incomes, jobs, and upwards mobility. That is why Americans don’t have those things-- which are called “basic public goods”-- while Europeans and Canadians do. Europeans and Canadians invest triple what Americans do in each other, and so their living standards go on rising. America’s living standards, on the other hand, go on plummeting. America’s one of the only countries in the world where we see a totally bizarre and gruesome situation-- every socieconomic indicator you can think of is cratering. From incomes to savings to trust to happiness to life expectancy-- all those things are in decline in America, usually rapid, steep decline. Americans have suffered a catastrophic fall in living standards since around the turn of the century-- precisely because America does not invest enough in Americans to ever make living standards rise again, really."

America’s living standards at this point are so incredibly abysmal that a child born in a poor Southern county has a lower life expectancy than someone in Bangladesh-- one of the world’s poorest, most decrepit nations.
That’s what happens when billionaires control more wealth than an entire society invests in itself collectively. The rest of society does not have enough left over to invest in itself-- in the things it needs most, which are basic public goods, the things we all need to enjoy rising living standards, whether healthcare, retirement, education, childcare, a little bit of income, a home of our own, and so forth.
When billionaires control such an immense amount of wealth that it becomes more than an entire society invests in itself, of course that society is going to end up being a failed state. Why, precisely? Well, if you can’t see it yet, it goes like this. People don’t have enough left over to invest in each other-- or even themselves. Life becomes a bitter, bruising battle for self-preservation, subsistence, mere survival. But that way, without collective investments in education, healthcare, retirement, democracy, parks, libraries, hospitals, roads, schools-- life never improves. It only ever falls apart, faster and harder.
And as life falls apart faster and harder, something even darker and more dangerous begins to happen. The working class grows afraid, anxious, angry. They feel betrayed and abandoned by the very elites who sold them a lie-- that one day, if they just accepted a handful of billionaires growing ultra mega rich into infinity, they’d benefit too. But instead of coming to their senses-- they lose them. Demagogues emerge, who point a finger of rage at scapegoats-- social groups even more powerless than the working class. Ethnic and religious minorities, usually. The demagogues shout-- “cleanse society of those dirty, filthy subhumans! They’re the ones responsible for your woes! Get rid of them, and we’ll Be Great Again!!”
Sound familiar? It should. It’s the vicious cycle of fascism that America fell into, by way of Trumpism. The one that’s still going on, as figures like Kevin McCarthy block an investigation into the coup attempt of Jan 6th, figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene celebrate and openly call for civil war and secession, figures like Josh Hawley openly admire white supremacy. American fascism happened by way of a catastrophic plunge into poverty and despair for its working class-- a fatal event that always, always predicts a climax of fascism.
All that’s why the figure of “billionaires hold more than 20% of America’s entire GDP in wealth” matters so much. Decoded, it really says: “billionaires hold more than America invests in itself, collectively. That leaves too little left over for the rest of America to invest in itself. So living standards fall, in a downward spiral. That downward spiral is what set off the vicious cycle of fascism. And all that’s what it means to be a failed state.”
No society should ever, ever be in a situation where billionaires hold more wealth than everyone else can invest in each other, put together. If and when that situation occurs, a society is almost certainly destined to end up a failed state. Fascism is almost certainly its destiny. I say almost certainly because now we’re talking about near-deterministic-- not “stochastic”-- social processes, as in, those that leave little to chance. Too much wealth in too few hands equals cratering lives for everyone else, as a society develops chronic shortages and deficits-- and that almost inevitably means a working class turns fascist, hard and fast. Weimar Germany, the Muslim World-- America. They’re all examples of this fatal trend.

And back to that argument about raising the taxes on the wealthy we were discussing earlier today. It looks like conservatives of both parties have found a hill to die on-- let's just hope they do die on it, at least in terms of their political careers. That's why Blue America is supporting congressional candidates-- click on the thermometer on the left-- who have very clear objectives when he comes to public investment and how to pay for it. Ally Dalsimer is running for a northern Virginia seat occupied by a garden variety neoliberal Democrat. This morning she told me that "The reality is that Trickle Down economics, while theoretically appealing to some, doesn't work in the real world. People have known this since the days of serfdom, though the uber-wealthy have continually (and successfully) managed to reinvigorate the idea. In recent U.S. history, Reagan famously touted the idea that giving more money to the wealthy would result in the wealthiest among us creating more businesses, hiring more people, etc. which would result in those dollars 'trickling down' to the poorest among us. This policy was not original and, if we're honest, is probably a rehash of the Coolidge financial plan that resulted in the Great Depression. Nevertheless, repackaged with pretty bells and populist whistles, Trump touted the same approach with different words. Unsurprisingly, we see the rich getting richer (stock market soars) while the poor get poorer (stagnant wages, high unemployment). We have GOT to stop enabling politicians to sell us the same bill of goods repackaged with different words, but with the same underlying flaws. There is no world in which 'trickle down' works. What works is enabling people to earn an income on a level playing field. Raising corporate tax rates from the currently absurd lows back to something reasonable, as well as ensuring that the ultra-wealthy 1% pay an equitable share of taxes, are the first crucial steps to truly getting our economy back on track."

Washington state progressive Jason Call has an even worse congressional opponent, Rick Larsen. "At the federal level we are not taxing the rich in order to pay for things," explained Call, an MMT advocate, some time ago. "The federal government does not need their money, and we really need to break that narrative. It is that narrative that is so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that is a root cause of why we actually don't get the federal spending that we need. Federal taxing and federal spending are two different animals. We tax the rich because we want to reduce their market power, because extreme wealth inequality is bad for Democracy (look at Bezos). But we do not tax them because we need their money to pay for programs. The federal government could just pay for it, and as long as it was good long term investment (infrastructure, education, healthcare-- the things that people need) there is zero evidence that such spending would cause inflation, which is what your average economist would say about 'too much' federal spending.

Today, Call elaborated: "I'm focused on one single reason that we must impose heavy taxation on the wealthy and large corporations. Concentrated wealth and extreme levels of wealth inequality are bad for democracy. That's it. End of story. We don't need their money to pay for federal level programs (we DO need it at the state and local level). In fact, when we talk about needing to impose federal taxes in order to justify spending, we are automatically setting ourselves up for the defeat of progressive policy programs, because the default mindset of conservatives in our government (that is, the entirety of the GOP, and at least half of the Democrats) is austerity. The reality is they would rather millions go without healthcare and education (or be saddled with crippling debt to have them) than risk their re-elections by supporting higher taxes on the wealthy. That in itself shows the immense market power of the wealthy that must be tackled, and why we must change the narrative on federal taxation. The wealthy have a vastly disproportionate level of influence on government policy. It's simply undemocratic. Aristocratic, plutocratic, elitist. When Jeff Bezos applied for $10 billion of federal money to do space exploration, he did it through my own Washington Senator Maria Cantwell, and she promoted him because he'd spent over half a billion dollars lobbying her and other Senators. That's the purchasing of government influence that we have to fight back against. We all know that our federal government is not opposed to 'unbalanced' spending when it wants it for the war machine or tax cuts for the wealthy, or other policies that will benefit the economic royalists. Nobody ever asks Congress 'how are you gonna pay for' military spending. They just do it, because military industrial complex lobbyists throw $10,000 checks at their re-election campaigns. It's the same with any federal program that could be made better by taking the profit motive out and guaranteeing the program to everyone (free college, free healthcare, free public transit). The rewards of having these programs be free (and yes, I do mean free) are societal returns such as a happier and healthier public, a cleaner and greener environment, and ultimately a more productive and more free society, which means it will not be inflationary to provide them. Where is the resistance? The wealthy lose their cut of profit and they also lose the measure of capitalist control that comes from having millions living in a depressed economy where the fruits of their labor are sucked upwards rather than benefiting directly those who have labored. So the wealthy pay Congress to oppose programs that would cut into their market share. This is why progressives must keep fighting for people-centered policies, but we also must do it by changing the narrative. Any time a Congressperson (like Rick Larsen, for instance) talks about the importance of a balanced budget, that means he is willing to go after social supports, because he's sure as hell not going to go after military spending. But the key is that it's all based in a false narrative about federal taxing and spending. Let's flip the table on that narrative."

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