Plutocrats, out!  Populists, in!  Good for Us!

By Shlomo  Maital

                     cynthia_freeland      Cynthia Freeland

   Writing in the New York Times Op-Ed (Nov. 1), “Plutocrats vs. Populists”, Cynthia Freeland makes an optimistic observation:  the plutocrats (the powerful and wealthy, who use their money to buy political influence and advance their self-interest) are losing out in America, and the populists, those who represent us ordinary folks,  are winning.

   How do the plutocrats gain power?  Two ways, she notes. 

   “….political lobbying strictly focused on the defense or expansion of their economic interests. This is very specific work, with each company or, at most, narrowly defined industry group advocating its self-interest: the hedge fund industry protecting the carried-interest tax loophole from which it benefits, or agribusiness pushing for continued subsidies. Often, these are fights for lower taxes and less regulation, but they are motivated by the bottom line, not by strictly political ideals, and they benefit very specific business people and companies, not the business community as a whole.” 

The lobbying industry is enormous and virtually out of control in the US Congress.

       “The second way today’s plutocrats flex their political muscle is more novel. Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, a pair of business writers, have called this approach “philanthrocapitalism” — activist engagement with public policy and social problems.   Philanthrocapitalism is a more self-consciously innovative and entrepreneurial effort to tackle the world’s most urgent social problems; philanthrocapitalists deploy not merely the fortunes they accumulated, but also the skills, energy and ambition they used to amass those fortunes in the first place. At its best, this form of plutocratic political power offers the tantalizing possibility of policy practiced at the highest professional level with none of the messiness and deal making and venality of traditional politics. You might call it the Silicon Valley school of politics — a technocratic, data-based, objective search for solutions to our problems, uncorrupted by vested interests or, when it comes to issues like smoking or soft drinks, our own self-indulgence.   But the same economic forces that have made this technocratic version of plutocratic politics possible — particularly the winner-take-all spiral that has increased inequality — have also helped define its limits.   Plutocrats are no more likely to send their own children to the charter schools they champion than they are to need the malaria cures they support.”

   How are the populists winning?  Bill de Blasio will be New York’s next mayor, replacing plutocrat par excellence Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was popular and who, I believe, did a fine job.  Here is Freeland’s “take” – populists win when they represent the losers and give them a voice:

    “The Tea Party was able to steer the Republican Party away from its traditional country-club base because its anti-establishment rage resonated better with all of the grass-roots Republican voters who are part of the squeezed middle class. Mr. de Blasio will be the next mayor of New York because he built a constituency among those who are losing out and those who sympathize with them. Politics in the winner-take-all economy don’t have to be extremist and nasty, but they have to grow out of, and speak for, the 99 percent. The pop-up political movements that come so naturally to the plutocrats won’t be enough.”

   Her column is based on her new book.  She is Canadian, and is a Liberal candidate for Canada’s Parliament.