All in the Family: How the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Sam Walton, Bill Gates, and Other Billionaires Are Undermining America

Yves here. Even though monied dynasties have long had outsized influence in the US, Steve Fraser contends that billionaires and their scions like the Koch brothers, the Walton heirs, and Sheldon Adelson wield far more power than their predecessors and are in the process of remaking America.

By Steve Fraser, the author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace. His next book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, will be published by Little Brown in February. He is a writer, historian, and co-founder of the American Empire Project. Originally published at TomDispatch

George Baer was a railroad and coal mining magnate at the turn of the twentieth century.  Amid a violent and protracted strike that shut down much of the country’s anthracite coal industry, Baer defied President Teddy Roosevelt’s appeal to arbitrate the issues at stake, saying, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for… not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men of property to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country.”  To the Anthracite Coal Commission investigating the uproar, Baer insisted, “These men don’t suffer. Why hell, half of them don’t even speak English.”

We might call that adopting the imperial position.  Titans of industry and finance back then often assumed that they had the right to supersede the law and tutor the rest of America on how best to order its affairs.  They liked to play God.  It’s a habit that’s returned with a vengeance in our own time.

The Koch brothers are only the most conspicuous among a whole tribe of “self-made” billionaires who imagine themselves architects or master builders of a revamped, rehabilitated America. The resurgence of what might be called dynastic or family capitalism, as opposed to the more impersonal managerial capitalism many of us grew up with, is changing the nation’s political chemistry. 

Our own masters of the universe, like the “robber barons” of old, are inordinately impressed with their ascendancy to the summit of economic power.  Add their personal triumphs to American culture’s perennial love affair with business — President Calvin Coolidge, for instance, is remembered today only for proclaiming that “the business of America is business” — and you have a formula for megalomania.

Take Jeff Greene, otherwise known as the “Meltdown Mogul.”  Back in 2010, he had the chutzpah to campaign in the Democratic primary for a Florida senate seat in a Miami neighborhood ravaged by the subprime mortgage debacle — precisely the arena in which he had grown fabulously rich.  In the process, he rallied locals against Washington insiders and regaled them with stories of his life as a busboy at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.  Protected from the Florida sun by his Prada shades, he alluded to his wealth as evidence that, as a maestro of collateralized debt obligations, no one knew better than he how to run the economy he had helped to pulverize.  He put an exclamation point on his campaign by flying off in his private jet only after securely strapping himself in with his gold-plated seat buckles.

Olympian entrepreneurs like Greene regularly end up seeing themselves as tycoons-cum-savants.  When they run for office, they do so as if they were trying to get elected to the board of directors of America, Inc.  Some will brook no interference with their will.  Property, lots of it, in a society given over to its worship, becomes a blank check: everything is permitted to those who have it.

Dream and Nightmare

This, then, is the indigenous romance of American capitalism.  The man from nowhere becomes a Napoleon of business and so a hero because he confirms a cherished legend: namely, that it’s the primordial birthright of those lucky enough to live in the New World to rise out of obscurity to unimaginable heights.  All of this, so the legend tells us, comes through the application of disciplined effort, commercial cunning and foresight, a take-no-prisoners competitive instinct, and a gambler’s sang froid in the face of the unforgiving riskiness of the marketplace.  Master all of that and you deserve to be a master of our universe.  (Conversely, this is the dark fairy tale that nineteenth century Gilded Age anti-capitalist rebels knew as “the Property Beast.”)  

What makes the creation of the titan particularly confounding is that it seems as if it shouldn’t be so.  Inside the colorless warrens of the counting house and factory workshop, a pedestrian preoccupation with profit and loss might be expected to smother all those instincts we associate with the warrior, the statesman, and the visionary, not to mention the tyrant.  As Joseph Schumpeter, the mid-twentieth century political economist, once observed, “There is surely no trace of any mystic glamour” about the sober-minded bourgeois.  He is not likely to “say boo to a goose.”

Yet the titan of capitalism overcomes that propensity.  As Schumpeter put it, he transforms himself into the sort of man who can “bend a nation to his will,” use his “extraordinary physical and nervous energy” to become “a leading man.”   Something happens through the experience of commercial conquest so intoxicating that it breeds a willful arrogance and a lust for absolute power of the sort for which George Baer hankered.  Call it the absolutism of self-righteous money.   

Sheldon Adelson, Charles and David Koch, Sam Walton, Rupert Murdoch, Linda McMahon, or hedge fund honchos like John Paulson and Steven Cohen all conform in one way or another to this historic profile.  Powers to be reckoned with, they presume to know best what we should teach our kids and how we should do it; how to defend the country’s borders against alien invasion, revitalize international trade, cure what ails the health-care delivery system, create jobs where there are none, rejigger the tax code, balance the national budget, put truculent labor unions in their place, and keep the country on the moral and racial straight and narrow. 

All this purported wisdom and self-assurance is home bred.  That is to say, these people are first of all family or dynastic capitalists, not the faceless men in suits who shimmy their way up the greased pole that configures the managerial hierarchies of corporate America.  Functionaries at the highest levels of the modern corporation may be just as wealthy, but they are a fungible bunch, whose loyalty to any particular outfit may expire whenever a more attractive stock option from another firm comes their way.

In addition, in our age of mega-mergers and acquisitions, corporations go in and out of existence with remarkable frequency, morphing into a shifting array of abstract acronyms.  They are carriers of great power, but without an organic attachment to distinct individuals or family lineages.

Instead dynasts of yesteryear and today have created family businesses or, as in the case of the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch, taken over ones launched by their fathers to which they are fiercely devoted. They guard their business sanctuaries by keeping them private, wary of becoming dependent on outside capital resources that might interfere with their freedom to do what they please with what they’ve amassed.

And they think of what they’ve built up not so much as a pile of cash, but as a patrimony to which they are bound by ties of blood, religion, region, and race.  These attachments turn ordinary business into something more transcendent.  They represent the tissues of a way of life, even a philosophy of life.  Its moral precepts about work, individual freedom, family relations, sexual correctness, meritocracy, equality, and social responsibility are formed out of the same process of self-invention that gave birth to the family business.  Habits of methodical self-discipline and the nurturing and prudential stewardship that occasionally turns a modest competency into a propertied goliath encourage the instinct to instruct and command.

There is no Tycoon Party in the U.S. imposing ideological uniformity on a group of billionaires who, by their very nature as übermensch, march to their own drummers and differ on many matters.  Some are philanthropically minded, others parsimonious; some are pietistic, others indifferent.  Wall Street hedge fund creators may donate to Obama and be card-carrying social liberals on matters of love and marriage, while heartland types like the Koch brothers obviously take another tack politically.  But all of them subscribe to one thing: a belief in their own omniscience and irresistible will.

There at the Creation

Business dynasts have enacted this imperial drama since the dawn of American capitalism — indeed, especially then, before the publicly traded corporation and managerial capitalism began supplanting their family capitalist predecessors at the turn of the twentieth century.  John Jacob Astor, America’s first millionaire, whose offices were once located on Manhattan Island where Zucotti Park now stands, was the most literal sort of empire builder.  In league with Thomas Jefferson, he attempted to extend that president’s “empire for liberty” all the way to the western edge of the continent and push out the British.  There, on the Oregon coast, he established the fur-trading colony of Astoria to consolidate his global control of the luxury fur trade. 

In this joint venture, president and tycoon both failed.  Astor, however, was perfectly ready to defy the highest authority in the land and deal with the British when it mattered most.  So when Jefferson embargoed trade with that country in the run-up to the War of 1812, the founder of one of the country’s most luminous dynasties simply ran the blockade.  An unapologetic elitist, Astor admired Napoleon, assumed the masses were not to be left to their own devices, and believed deeply that property ought to be the prerequisite for both social position and political power.

Traits like Astor’s willfulness and self-sufficiency cropped up frequently in the founding generation of America’s “captains of industry.” Often they were accompanied by a chest-thumping braggadocio and thumb-in-your eye irreverence.  Cornelius Vanderbilt, called by his latest biographer “the first tycoon,” was known in his day as “the Commodore.”  Supposedly, he warned someone foolish enough to challenge his supremacy in the steamboat business that “I won’t sue you, I’ll ruin you.” 

Or take “Jubilee” Jim Fisk. He fancied himself an admiral but wasn’t one, and after the Civil War, when caught plundering the Erie Railroad, boasted that he was “born to be bad.”   Later on, when a plot he hatched to corner the nation’s supply of gold left him running from the law, Jim classically summed up the scandal this way: “Nothing lost save honor.”

More than a century before Mitt Romney and Bain Capital came along, Jay Gould, a champion railroad speculator and buccaneering capitalist, scoured the country for companies to buy, loot, and sell.  Known by his many detractors as “the Mephistopheles of Wall Street,” he once remarked, when faced with a strike against one of his railroads, that he could “hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”

George Pullman, nicknamed “the Duke” in America’s world of self-made royalty, wasn’t shy about dealing roughly with the rowdy “mob” either.  As a rising industrialist in Chicago in the 1870s, he — along with other young men from the city’s new manufacturing elite — actually took up arms to put down a labor insurgency and financed the building of urban armories, stocked with the latest artillery, including a new machine gun marketed as the “Tramp Terror.” (This was but one instance among many of terrorism from above by the forces of “law and order.”)

However, Pullman was better known for displaying his overlordship in quite a different fashion.  Cultivating his sense of dynastic noblesse oblige, he erected a model town, which he aptly named Pullman, just outside Chicago. There residents not only labored to manufacture sleeping cars for the nation’s trains, but were also tutored in how to live respectable lives — no drinking, no gambling, proper dress and deportment — while living in company-owned houses, shopping at company-owned stores, worshipping at company churches, playing in company parks, reading company-approved books in the company library, and learning the “three Rs” from company schoolmarms.  Think of it as a Potemkin working class village, a commercialized idyll of feudal harmony — until it wasn’t.  The dream morphed into a nightmare when “the Duke” suddenly began to slash wages and evict his “subjects” amid the worst depression of the nineteenth century.  This, in turn, provoked a nationwide strike and boycott, eventually crushed by federal troops.

The business autocrats of the Gilded Age could be rude and crude like Gould, Vanderbilt, and Fisk or adopt the veneer of civilization like Pullman.  Some of these “geniuses” of big business belonged to what Americans used to call the “shoddy aristocracy.”  Fisk had, after all, started out as a confidence man in circuses and Gould accumulated his “start-up capital” by bilking a business partner.  “Uncle” Daniel Drew, top dog on Wall Street around the time of the Civil War (and a pious one at that, who founded Drew Theological Seminary), had once been a cattle drover. Before bringing his cows to the New York market, he would feed them salt licks to make sure they were thirsty and then fill them with water so they would make it to the auction block weighing far more than their mere flesh and bones could account for.  He bequeathed America the practice of “watered stock.”

Not all the founding fathers of our original tycoonery, however, were social invisibles or refugees from the commercial badlands.  They could also hail from the highest precincts of the social register.  The Morgans were a distinguished banking and insurance clan going all the way back to colonial days.  J.P. Morgan was therefore to the manor born.  At the turn of the twentieth century, he functioned as the country’s unofficial central banker, meaning he had the power to allocate much of the capital that American society depended on.  Nonetheless, when asked about bearing such a heavy social responsibility, he bluntly responded, “I owe the public nothing.”  

This sort of unabashed indifference to the general welfare was typical and didn’t end in the new century.  During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the managements of some major publicly owned corporations felt compelled by a newly militant labor movement and the shift in the political atmosphere that accompanied President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to recognize and bargain with the unions formed by their employees.  Not so long before, some of these corporations, in particular United States Steel, had left a trail of blood on the streets of the steel towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio when they crushed the Great Steel Strike of 1919.  But times had changed. 

Not so, however, for the adamantine patriarchs who still owned and ran the nation’s “little steel” companies (which were hardly little).  Men like Tom Girdler of Republic Steel resented any interference with their right to rule over what happened on their premises and hated the New Deal, as well as its allies in the labor movement, because they challenged that absolutism.  So it was that, on Memorial Day 1937, 10 strikers were shot in the back and killed while picketing Girdler’s Chicago factory.

The Great U-Turn

By and large, however, the middle decades of the twentieth century were dominated by modern concerns like U.S. Steel, General Motors, and General Electric, whose corporate CEOs were more sensitive to the pressures of their multiple constituencies.  These included not only workers, but legions of shareholders, customers, suppliers, and local and regional public officials. 

Publicly held corporations are, for the most part, owned not by a family, dynasty, or even a handful of business partners, but by a vast sea of shareholders. Those “owners” have little if anything to do with running “their” complex companies.  This is left to a managerial cadre captained by lavishly rewarded chief executives.  Their concerns are inherently political, but not necessarily ideological.  They worry about their brand’s reputation, have multiple dealings with a broad array of government agencies, look to curry favor with politicians from both parties, and are generally reasonably vigilant about being politically correct when it comes to matters of race, gender, and other socially sensitive issues.  Behaving in this way is, after all, a marketing strategy that shows up where it matters most — on the bottom line.

Over the last several decades, however, history has done a U-turn.  Old-style private enterprises of enormous size have made a remarkable comeback.  Partly, this is a consequence of the way the federal government has encouraged private enterprise through the tax code, land-use policy, and subsidized finance.  It is also the outcome of a new system of decentralized, flexible capitalism in which large, complex corporations have downloaded functions once performed internally onto an array of outside, independent firms.   

Family capitalism has experienced a renaissance.  Even giant firms are now often controlled by their owners the way Andrew Carnegie once captained his steel works or Henry Ford his car company.  Some of these new family firms were previously publicly traded corporations that went private.  A buy-out craze initiated by private equity firms hungry for quick turn-around profits, like Mitt Romney’s infamous Bain Capital, lent the process a major hand. This might be thought of as entrepreneurial capitalism for the short-term, a strictly finance-driven strategy.

But family-based firms in it for the long haul have also proliferated and flourished in this era of economic turbulence.  These are no longer stodgy, technologically antiquated outfits, narrowly dedicated to churning out a single, time-tested product.  They are often remarkably adept at responding to shifts in the market, often highly diversified in what they make and sell, and — thanks to the expansion of capital markets — they now enjoy a degree of financial independence not unlike that of their dynastic forebears of the nineteenth century, who relied on internally generated resources to keep free of the banks.  They have been cropping up in newer growth sectors of the economy, including retail, entertainment, energy, finance, and high tech.  Nor are they necessarily small-fry mom-and-pop operations.  One-third of the Fortune 500 now fall into the category of family-controlled. 

Feet firmly anchored in their business fiefdoms, family patriarchs loom over the twenty-first-century landscape, lending it a back-to-the-future air.  They exercise enormous political influence.  They talk loudly and carry big sticks.  Their money elects officials, finances their own campaigns for public office, and is reconfiguring our political culture by fertilizing a rain forest of think tanks, journals, and political action committees.  A nation which, a generation ago, largely abandoned its historic resistance to organized wealth and power has allowed this newest version of the “robber baron” to dominate the public arena to a degree that might have astonished even John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The Political Imperative

That ancestral generation, living in an era when the state was weak and kept on short rations, didn’t need to be as immersed in political affairs.  Contacting a kept senator or federal judge when needed was enough.  The modern regulatory and bureaucratic welfare state has extended its reach so far and wide that it needs to be steered, if not dismantled.

Some of our new tycoons try doing one or the other from off-stage through a bevy of front organizations and hand-selected candidates for public office.  Others dive right into the electoral arena themselves.  Linda McMahon, who with her husband created the World Wrestling Entertainment empire, is a two-time loser in senate races in Connecticut.  Rick Scott, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur, did better, becoming Florida’s governor.  Such figures, and other triumphalist types like them, claim their rise to business supremacy as their chief credential, often their only credential, when running for office or simply telling those holding office what to do.

Our entrepreneurial maestros come in a remarkable range of sizes and shapes.  On style points, “the Donald” looms largest.  Like so many nineteenth century dynasts, his family origins are modest.  A German grandfather arriving here in 1885 was a wine maker, a barber, and a saloonkeeper in California; father Fred became the Henry Ford of homebuilding, helped along by New Deal low-cost housing subsidies.  His son went after splashier, flashier enterprises like casinos, luxury resorts, high-end hotels, and domiciles for the 1%.  In all of this, the family name, splashed on towers of every sort and “the Donald’s” image — laminated hair-do and all — became his company’s chief assets.

Famous for nothing other than being very rich, Trump feels free to hold forth on every conceivable subject of public import from same-sex marriage to the geopolitics of the Middle East.  Periodically, he tosses his hat into the electoral arena.  But he comports himself like a clown.  He even has a game named after himself: “Trump — The Game,” whose play currency bears Donald’s face and whose lowest denomination is $10 million.  No wonder no one takes his right-wing bluster too seriously.  A modern day “Jubilee Jim Fisk,” craving attention so much he’s willing to make himself ridiculous, the Donald is his own reality TV show.

Rupert Murdoch, on the other hand, looks and dresses like an accountant and lives mainly in the shadows.  Like Trump, he inherited a family business.  Unlike Trump, his family pedigree was auspicious.  His father was Sir Keith, a media magnate from Melbourne, Australia, and Rupert went to Oxford.  Now, the family’s media influence straddles continents, as Rupert attempts — sometimes with great success — to make or break political careers and steer whole political parties to the right.

The News Corporation is a dynastic institution of the modern kind in which Murdoch uses relatively little capital and a complex company structure to maintain and vigorously exercise the family’s control.  When the Ford Motor Company finally went public in 1956, it did something similar to retain the Ford family’s dominant position.  So, too, did Google, whose “dual-class share structure” allowed its founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to continue calling the shots.  Murdoch’s empire may, on first glance, seem to conform to American-style managerial corporate capitalism, apparently rootless, cosmopolitan, fixed on the bottom line. In fact, it is tightly tethered to Murdoch’s personality and conservative political inclinations and to the rocky dynamics of the Murdoch succession.  That is invariably the case with our new breed of dynastic capitalists.   

Sheldon Adelson, the CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and sugar daddy to right-wing political wannabes from city hall to the White House, lacks Murdoch’s finesse but shares his convictions and his outsized ambition to command the political arena.  He’s the eighth richest man in the world, but grew up poor as a Ukrainian Jew living in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston.  His father was a cab driver and his mother ran a knitting shop.  He went to trade school to become a court reporter and was a college drop-out.  He started several small businesses that failed, winning and losing fortunes.  Then he gambled and hit the jackpot, establishing lavish hotels and casinos around the world.  When he again lost big time during the global financial implosion of 2007-2008, he responded the way any nineteenth century sea dog capitalist might have: “So I lost twenty-five billion dollars.  I started out with zero… [there is] no such thing as fear, not to any entrepreneur.  Concern, yes.  Fear, no.”  

A committed Zionist, Adelson was once a Democrat.  But he jumped ship over Israel and because he believed the party’s economic policies were ruining the country.  (He’s described Obama’s goal as “a socialist-style economy.”)  He established the Freedom Watch’s dark-money group as a counterweight to George Soros’s Open Society and to MoveOn.org.  According to one account, Adelson “seeks to dominate politics and public policy through the raw power of money.”  That has, for instance, meant backing Newt Gingrich in the Republican presidential primaries of 2012 against Mitt Romney, whom he denounced as a “predatory capitalist” (talk about the pot calling the kettle black!), and not long after, funneling cash to candidate Romney.

Free Markets and the Almighty

Charles and David Koch are perfect specimens of this new breed of family capitalists on steroids.  Koch Industries is a gigantic conglomerate headquartered in the heartland city of Wichita, Kansas.  Charles, who really runs the company, lives there.  David, the social and philanthropic half of this fraternal duopoly, resides in New York City.  Not unlike George “the Duke” Pullman, Charles has converted Wichita into something like a company city, where criticism of Koch Industries is muted at best. 

The firm’s annual revenue is in the neighborhood of $10 billion, generated by oil refineries, thousands of miles of pipelines, paper towels, Dixie cups, Georgia Pacific lumber, Lycra, and Stainmaster Carpet, among other businesses.  It is the second largest privately owned company in the United States.  (Cargill, the international food conglomerate, comes first.)  The brothers are inordinately wealthy, even for our “new tycoonery.”  Only Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are richer. 

While the average businessman or corporate executive is likely to be pretty non-ideological, the Koch brothers are dedicated libertarians.  Their free market orthodoxy makes them adamant opponents of all forms of government regulation.  Since their companies are among the top 10 air polluters in the United States, that also comports well with their material interests — and the Kochs come by their beliefs naturally, so to speak. 

Their father, Fred, was the son of a Dutch printer who settled in Texas and started a newspaper.  He later became a chemical engineer and invented a better method for converting oil into gasoline.  In one of history’s little jokes, he was driven out of the industry by the oil giants who saw him as a threat.  Today, Koch Industries is sometimes labeled “the Standard Oil of our time,” an irony it’s not clear the family would appreciate.  After a sojourn in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union (of all places), helping train oil engineers, Fred returned stateside to set up his own oil refinery business in Wichita.  There, he joined the John Birch Society and ranted about the imminent Communist takeover of the government.  In that connection he was particularly worried that “the colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America.”

Father Fred raised his sons in the stern regimen of the work ethic and instructed the boys in the libertarian catechism. This left them lifelong foes of the New Deal and every social and economic reform since.  That included not only predictable measures like government health insurance, social security, and corporate taxes, but anything connected to the leviathan state.  Even the CIA and the FBI are on the Koch chopping block. 

Dynastic conservatism of this sort has sometimes taken a generation to mature.  Sam Walton, like many of his nineteenth-century analogs, was not a political animal.  He just wanted to be left alone to do his thing and deploy his power over the marketplace.  So he stayed clear of electoral and party politics, although he implicitly relied on the racial, gender, and political order of the old South, which kept wages low and unions out, to build his business in the Ozarks.  After his death in 1992, however, Sam’s heirs entered the political arena in a big way.

In other respects Sam Walton conformed to type.  He was impressed with himself, noting that “capital isn’t scarce; vision is” (although his “one stop shopping” concept was already part of the retail industry before he started Walmart).  His origins were humble.  He was born on a farm in Kingfisher, Oklahoma.  His father left farming for a while to become a mortgage broker, which in the Great Depression meant he was a farm re-possessor for Metropolitan Life Insurance.  Sam did farm chores, then worked his way through college, and started his retail career with a small operation partly funded by his father-in-law.

At every juncture, the firm’s expansion depended on a network of family relations.  Soon enough, his stores blanketed rural and small-town America.  Through all the glory years, Sam’s day began before dawn as he woke up in the same house he’d lived in for more than 30 years.  Then, dressed in clothes from one of his discount stores, off he went to work in his red Ford pick-up truck.

Some dynasts are pietistic and some infuse their business with religion.  Sam Walton did a bit of both.  In his studiously modest “life style,” there was a kind of outward piety.  Living without pretension, nose to the grindstone, and methodically building up the family patrimony has for centuries carried a sacerdotal significance, leaving aside any specific Protestant profession of religious faith.  But there was professing as well.  Though not a fundamentalist, he was a loyal member of the First Presbyterian Church in Bentonville, Arkansas, where he was a “ruling elder” and occasionally taught Sunday school (something he had also done in college as president of the Burall Bible Class Club).

Christianity would play a formative role in his labor relations strategy at Walmart.  His employees — “associates,” he dubbed them — were drawn from an Ozark world of Christian fraternity which Walmart management cultivated.  “Servant leadership” was a concept designed to encourage workers to undertake their duties serving the company’s customers in the same spirit as Jesus, who saw himself as a “servant leader.” 

This helped discourage animosities in the work force, as well as blunting the — to Walton — dangerous desire to do something about them through unionizing or responding in any other way to the company’s decidedly subpar working conditions and wages.  An aura of Christian spiritualism plus company-scripted songs and cheers focused on instilling company loyalty, profit-sharing schemes, and performance bonuses constituted a twentieth century version of Pullman’s town idyll.

All of this remained in place after Sam’s passing.  What changed was the decision of his fabulously wealthy relatives to enter the political arena.  Walton lobbying operations now cover a broad range of issues, including lowering corporate taxes and getting rid of the estate tax entirely, as his heirs subsidize mainly Republican candidates and causes.  Most prominent of all have been the Walton efforts to privatize education through vouchers or by other means, often enough turning public institutions into religiously affiliated schools.

Wall Street has never been known for its piety.  But the tycoons who founded the Street’s most lucrative hedge funds — men like John Paulson, Paul Tudor James II, and Steve Cohen, among others — are also determined to up-end the public school system.  They are among the country’s most powerful proponents of charter schools.  Like J.P. Morgan of old, these men grew up in privilege, went to prep schools and the Ivy League, and have zero experience with public education or the minorities who tend to make up a large proportion of charter school student bodies.

No matter.  After all, some of these people make several million dollars a day.  What an elixir!  They are joined in this educational crusade by fellow business conquistadors of less imposing social backgrounds like Mark Zuckerberg, who has ensured that Facebook will remain a family domain even while “going public.”  Another example would be Bill Gates, the most celebrated of a brace of techno-frontiersmen who — legend would have it — did their pioneering in homely garages, even though the wonders they invented would have been inconceivable without decades of government investment in military-related science and technology.  What can’t these people do, what don’t they know?  They are empire builders and liberal with their advice and money when it comes to managing the educational affairs of the nation.  They also benefit handsomely from a provision in the tax code passed during the Clinton years that rewards them for investing in “businesses” like charter schools.

Our imperial tycoons are a mixed lot.  They range from hip technologists like Zuckerberg to heroic nerds like Bill Gates, and include yesteryear traditionalists like Sam Walton and the Koch brothers.  What they share with each other and their robber baron ancestors is a god-like desire to create the world in their image. 

Watching someone play god may amuse us, as “the Donald” can do in an appalling sort of way.  It is, however, a dangerous game with potentially deadly consequences for a democratic way of life already on life support.

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66 comments

    1. Benedict@Large

      And a wonderful quote that was. Probably pretty accurate also. Judging from the dates, Keynes seems more to be documenting the response to The Crash than to be leading it.

      1. larry

        Keynes wasn’t doing either. He was trying to figure a way of avoiding another one by trying to see how the view of the economic system current at his time was erroneous. While he didn’t completely succeed, as can be seen by his responses to critical comments on his General Theory, a number of his comments correct mistakes or acknowledge the critical amendments of others, principally the corrections made by Kalecki and his addition of the finance motive, present in the Treatise on Money but inexplicably missing from the General Theory.

        1. Nathanael

          A very British pastime. The analogy in the *political* world: Earl Grey was trying to avoid a second French Revolution in England (the actual French Revolution had happened in his lifetime) and prevent a second English Revolution (only a few generations back). He succeeded.

          The House of Lords really, really didn’t want to go along with his plan.

  1. paul

    George Baer’s statement was echoed by a question to Alex Salmond yesterday by Nick Robinson* of the BBC.

    “Why should a scottish voter believe you, a politician, against men who are responsible for billions of pounds of profits

    An extraordinary question that was compounded by his reporting that the first minister failed to answer. Ignoring the three minute reply given to him.

    *Robinson was a founder member of Macclesfield Young Conservatives and rose through the ranks, becoming Cheshire Young Conservative Chairman (1982-84) and became a key activist in the moderate controlled North West Area organisation. National YC Chairman, Phil Pedley coopted Robinson onto the Young Conservative National Advisory Committee in 1983 and appointed him National Campaign Director of Youth for Multilateral Disarmament. Robinson was elected National Vice Chairman in 1985-87 and succeeded fellow moderate, Richard Fuller, when he was elected Chairman of the National Young Conservatives on the moderate ticket against strong right-wing opposition (1987-88) [6]

    At university he was President of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1985.[7][8]

  2. proximity1

    To borrow and put a different turn on Scrooge’s queries:

    “Are there no criminal laws, no criminal court judges? Are there no public prosecutors?”

  3. David

    Great commentary. Whatever was old is new again, or, as the song goes “everybody wants to rule the world.” The problem is, of course, that in America we seem to believe in enabling people to do it. Our love of the myth of the pioneer keeps dominating our need to teach the disciplines and obligations of democracy.

    1. curlydan

      I also liked the analysis of our nation’s and culture’s idolatry of these rich people. The fact is that many more people could become (or try to become) fabulously wealthy if they gambled with money and people’s lives more. There could be many more Sheldon Adelsons, but in fact, most people stop short of that type of infatuation with gains at all costs.

      The love of billionaires becomes, in many cases, the love of gamblers. So when we endorse a super-rich guy to lead us because he’s rich and “knows something about running a business”, we’re essentially placing the care of our country into the hands of a self-centered maniac who likes to gamble.

      The role of patrician is gone. George H. W. Bush was the last patrician President–very rich, but he _sometimes_ gave a crap about stewardship of the country (yet other times showed his CIA roots when letting the Iraq war happen).

  4. proximity1

    I certainly agree that the combined effects of these super-wealthy people’s selfish ambitions “undermine” America–or at the very least, undermine much of what to me might be thought once possibly good about it. But there are also other factors which are at work, multiplying the effects of super-wealthy people’s greed and presumed preeminence.

    The following excerpts, which are from a draft of the final chapter of Steve Fraser’s Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power are found at the site, “Philosophers for Change” (http://philosophersforchange.org).

    I’ve selected a few paragraphs in order to ty to illustrate what I think these other undermining factors include. In reading them, I thought first of the argument which Guy Debord presents in his work, La société du spectacle (1967) and its sequel, which he wrote twenty years later, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle. In various ways, much about what Fraser writes here is an echo of or a reformulation of what Debord, in his way, was trying to relate about modern society’s self-effacement into a ever-retreating spectacle of itself.

    From : http://philosophersforchange.org/2014/01/14/to-go-beyond-the-capitalist-state/
    “To go beyond the capitalist state” , Steve Fraser, January 14, 2014

    (an allusion to Marx & Engels’ phrase, “everything solid melts into air” [ from The Communist Manifesto] preceeded the following)

    …” Efforts to stop the melting, to return the world to some solid state, do evince pathos. True, they also produce episodes of political burlesque, lots of adolescent noise-making, gnashing of teeth, and mugging for the cameras but not much else. But no one can deny the anguish trailing in the wake of neo-liberal, flexible capitalism. It has spread the liquefaction of society and the psyche far afield and deeply into the tissues of social life. When Marx first spied it the dynamic was as exhilarating as it was unnerving. Now it is more apt to bring on queasiness, a sense of the free-falling unmoored individual descending into the abyss, desperate for a grip. However, this sensation has been christened as the new world’s version of freedom. Consequently, it has become very difficult to sort out the realm of acquiescence from the realm of fear. Did we sign up for this or is our salute a forced one? Are we, as one famous psychoanalyst once asked, afraid to be free; or are we free to be afraid?”

    … ” For example, the ubiquity of market thinking transformed combative political instincts into commercial and personalized ones: Environmental despoiling arouses righteous eating; cultural decay inspires charter schools; rebellion against work becomes work as a form of rebellion; old form anti-clericalism morphs into the piety of the secular; the break with convention ends up as the politics of style; the cri de coeur against alienation surrenders to the triumph of the solitary; the marriage of political and cultural radicalism ends in divorce. Like a deadly plague irony spreads everywhere. ”

    … ” Nowadays we live in a political universe pre-occupied with gossip, rumor, insinuations, and innuendo. Personal transgressions, scandals, outré behavior; secrets have become the pulp fiction of politics. This can be entertaining. Indeed, it may be intended by the media to be so as it is eye and ear catching. It displays a kinship with the inherent sensationalism of consumer culture more generally. It is also, often, if not always, stupendously trivial or only marginally relevant, but is treated in exactly the opposite way. ”

    … “Yet this occludes vision of what may actually matter, at least when it comes to understanding and working out social conflicts, the dilemmas of our time. So even as it illuminates, garishly, the political arena it de-politicizes that arena. Politics become less and less about power, who has it, why, who should have it, for what purpose. Instead it comes to resemble a clinic for voyeurs where pathologies are exposed and presumably treated by doses of electoral defeat. ”

    … ” Arguably, “the personal is political” has morphed into something far less liberating, far more debilitating: namely, that only the personal is political. How disarming this is can only be fully appreciated when measured against the relentless growth of the leviathan state whose impersonal mechanics unfold with little or no regard for the personal peccadilloes of its functionaries.”

    … “Many blame the media so intertwined with the power blocs of politics and business – and itself an increasingly concentrated planetary business. Now and then it does indeed function like a propaganda machine and a censor.

    But most of the time it operates more insidiously than that. Rather it narrowly circumscribes what is allowable and thereby what is verboten in public debate, what is legitimate and what is outré, what is to be taken seriously and what is to be cooly dismissed. It invokes the sounds of silence without gagging anyone.”

    … “Many blame the media so intertwined with the power blocs of politics and business – and itself an increasingly concentrated planetary business. Now and then it does indeed function like a propaganda machine and a censor.

    “But most of the time it operates more insidiously than that. Rather it narrowly circumscribes what is allowable and thereby what is verboten in public debate, what is legitimate and what is outré, what is to be taken seriously and what is to be cooly dismissed. It invokes the sounds of silence without gagging anyone.”


    “Numbing like this may sedate. But it also is antipathetic to the instinct to act politically in the world. Fatalism flourishes. So plenty of skepticism about just what the new [N.Y.C.] mayor [Bill de Blasio] could or even would try to do to undo the gross inequalities of power and wealth that had characterized the city for a generation emerged even before the ballots were counted. And that could turn out to be a gloomily accurate forecast. ”

    1. diptherio

      That’s a great link, thanks.

      It was penned in January of this year. I had to check the date when I read this sentence:

      There are no tanks in the streets (although now and then we do witness mass arrests or a drone take-down of a citizen). Rather persuasion, not force, does much of the heavy lifting.

      No longer the case now, of course. The tyranny proceeds a pace…

    2. Banger

      Nice excerpt, thanks for posting it. Debord was a major influence on me back in the day–despite his strange prose his insights are essential–sadly he seems much neglected in the USA.

      1. proximity1

        Debord warned English-readers of the extremely poor quality of his early published translations. Even in his original French, his ideas, while fascinating, aren’t the most obvious and superficial things in the conceptual world of social affairs. Still, in French, he “makes more sense”–which shouldn’t be a great surprise, it’s his native language. When no one, after about 20 years, had followed up on the work of La société du spectacle, he explains in the sequel Commentaires sur … (1988) that he finally recognized the effort fell to him to do that. And, since then?—

  5. Banger

    One of the reason Franklin Roosevelt was hated so passionately by the rich and the ambitious was that is was very hard to become very, very rich between 1932 and 1978 which I would call the New Deal era. This was, more or less, a time of relative income equality and national coherence. Democratic values and the “common touch” were much admired. During that time the labor movement grew to achieve great political power.

    What changed? The culture changed and people demanded more variety, more dynamism, more liberation. But the dark side of the openings of the 1960s and 70s was the move away from community, solidarity into something Christopher Lasch called the culture of narcissism and the fact the white working class abandoned not just labor unions but the Democratic Party due to its identification with minority rights, feminism and anti-war sentiment–and, in the end, the DP abandoned the working class by reforming the tax code to make sure they got slammed good and proper. The alignments that solidified by 1978-80 remain to this day though they are beginning to go in a new direction.

    At any rate, with the New Deal coalition shattered the pent-up demand for fabulous riches exploded in the 1980s and has continued unabated to this day. It was that period that showed a constant increase in income and wealth among the .01% of the population and a relative decline in income and wealth among the bottom and middle incomes. Government rolled back its scrutiny and regulation–rather than regulate for society government began to regulate for powerful corporate interests and helped create billionaires rather than inhibit them. We are now at the point that government, despite its powerful influence in society (unlike the late 19th century), no longer serves the interest of the vast majority of the American people–in fact, is now structurally unable to do so by a complex and interwoven set of arrangements that include all major industries and aspects of public life. The Koch brothers, who are the most genuinely visionary of this class of plutocrats, want to now remove what is left of government oversight and rule directly along with their fellow feudal lords and ladies. I see, today, nothing substantial getting in their way other than one great institutions–the National Security State. At some point the uneasy alliance between the martinets and spooks and the great emergen feudal aristocracy will be interesting to watch–you can see this in the strange jerky dance of Rand Paul who finds himself in the middle of this inherent conflict. In the past these two sides were united–now, who knows?

    1. Ulysses

      Interesting point about neo-feudal aristocrats being impatient with any checks on their power, even the Surveillance State, which, after all, primarily functions to monitor and disrupt possible challenges to kleptocratic rule. Sort of like the early 15th c. Duke of Burgundy, with more real wealth and power, being pissed at his technical subordination to the King of France. The Koch brothers must find it mortifying that someone like Obama, or Holder for that matter, can marshall resources that they don’t control, and can make some decisions without their approval.

      This emergent neo-feudal elite really are the only people able to seriously confront the MIC and the Security State. While mostly they content themselves with buying elected officials to make sure their interests are protected, occasionally they will take the liberty of criticizing aspects of the status quo. In this way, billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s patronage of Glenn Greenwald is a bit reminiscent of Frederick the Great of Prussia’s patronage of Voltaire.

      1. Nathanael

        “This emergent neo-feudal elite really are the only people able to seriously confront the MIC and the Security State. ”

        They’re going to crack it wide open. Burgundy lost to France, but that’s not actually the typical pattern; usually the rising dynasty displaces the older dynasty (as Prussia overthrew the Holy Roman Empire).

        There’s a huge fight between the “old industry” feudal elite (Kochs, Waltons) and the “new industry” feudal elite (Bezos, Page, Brin). I would not bet on the old elite. The new elite is another matter entirely.

    2. Whine Country

      “What changed? ”

      The debate will never end as to whether these super rich and super powerful are self-made (as they want us to believe) or if they are a product of the environment. (A random event). Would I surprise you if I said that the rich almost universally believe in the former and most of the poor believe the opposite. (“Another example would be Bill Gates, the most celebrated of a brace of techno-frontiersmen who — legend would have it — did their pioneering in homely garages, even though the wonders they invented would have been inconceivable without decades of government investment in military-related science and technology.) What changed was the balance between the two imponderable positions. As time went on, more and more people began to believe that the only think holding them back is government policies and that had to be changed. When the balance finally tipped, we went back to the “good old days” and in the dog eat dog world we created, naturally some people became richer than God. I agree with the author’s statement about Bill Gates (and would add personally from my own personal experiences that Bill Gates would be no where near where he is if his mother had not been very well connected to IBM at the time that they made one of the most foolish business decision in the history of any modern company – deciding to make the boxes and letting Bill make the operating system. But that’s a story for another day), Why are these people so successful? The same reason scientists tell us that we are here today. Given the right environment and the passage of time, all these things are predictable outcomes given enough time. They were in the right place at the right time and every time you look to see what they have in common, the result of the inquiry produces such widely different traits that the only reasonable answer is that it must be randomness. (I think the author demonstrates my point in his writing) The problem is that deep down we just do not want to believe this about ourselves. These people are where they are because someone has to be – period. So, again, what changed? The pendulum swung from one extreme to the other – belief in the meritocracy to believe in randomness and the contributions of everyone before you (especially your parents and their “brilliance” at giving birth to you in the right place). Sorry all of you but I’ll never change my mind about this. You had no more to do with your achieving your position in the world than a man with a twelve inch penis has to do with his endowment.

      1. Vatch

        Excellent point about Bill Gates and similar people being in the right place at the right time. History is full of such apparent coincidences. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz invented the calculus independently at about the same time. Ditto for evolution, independently conceived by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, and the telephone, simultaneously invented by Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell. There are times when collective knowledge reaches a saturation point, and multiple people are able to move us to the next stage. One person will be lucky and get the rewards, and others, just as talented and hard working, may get little or nothing.

      2. fresno dan

        Just a comment on Microsoft, as I gag on the hypocrisy of “free enterprise” by those who most ignored and circumvented its precepts
        ————————————————-
        “Microsoft’s greatest strength has always been its monopoly position in the PC chain. Its exclusionary licensing agreement with PC manufacturers mandated a payment for an MS-DOS license whether or not a Microsoft operating system was used. Because it made no sense to pay for two operating systems, it created a huge barrier to entry for any other software firm. No other operating-system maker could get a toehold in the PC market. By the time the company settled with the Justice Department in 1994 over this illegal arrangement, Microsoft had garnered a dominant market share of all operating systems sold. It held a lock grip on the market until 2008, when it fell below 90 percent desktop OS share for the first time.”
        ————————————————————————————-
        So, was the lack of anti trust due to incompetence or was it a defacto change in policy, and the US decided to unleash the power of monopoly????

        http://www.ritholtz.com/blog/2013/09/whats-behind-microsofts-fall-from-dominance/

        1. Whine Country

          Most people don’t understand that IBM similarly used its monopoly power to gain their position. It was not until the early 70s or so that you could buy an IBM computer. Their business model was to only lease the machines and lease them with the operating system bundled (a package so to speak). Back then, as you say, the Justice Department had not yet become comatose and they sued IBM for anti-trust violations. The result was that IBM was for the first time forced to sell their computers. But, having some of the finest lawyers that money could by at the time, IBM then went to selling the computers BUT ONLY LEASING THE OPERATING SYSTEM! So you could buy the computer, which was, as a practical matter a very large paper weight without an operating system, and then enter into short term leases (with 3 percent increases every 6 months or so). By the time you had the computer installed and operational you were a slave to IBM. In essence they sold you the bridge and then reserved the right to charge you whatever they wanted to cross it. Now, with this as a business model, how can you explain how they were leered into the very trap they set for all of their customers, and decided to manufacture a box of electronic parts that was different from the other computers they were “selling” only insofar that it was a relatively light paper weight, and let Bill Gates have a license to sell the operating system. Incredible stupidity or corruption (Bill’s mom was well connected to IBM at the time) is the only possible explanation. Some genius! Read this link and again tell me that Bill Gates’s success is because of meritocracy and not blind pig luck:

          http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/07/30/msdos_paternity_suit_resolved/

          And you are also correct about the Justice Department. By the time Gates was up and flying high, they had been put into a state of suspended animation, for political reasons, and completely lost the ability to spot an anti-trust violation even when it was staring them right in their collective faces. Yeah, some genius!

          Thanks for the link.

          1. Vatch

            Yes, MS-DOS largely imitated Tim Peterson’s QDOS, which was an imitation of Gary Kildall’s CP/M. And Microsoft Windows is in many ways an imitation of the Apple Macintosh operating system, which was heavily based on work performed by Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center.

    3. larry

      Lasch also wrote, his last book, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy in order to describe what he thought was going on. This was in 1996 and in the same year, an economist, John Smithin, published a book whose subtitle is The Revenge of the Rentiers and the Threat to Prosperity. The Depression appears to have taken from them what they thought they were due and they have been in the process of taking it back for the past 30 years. And they have been assisted in this endeavor, even before 1971, by the neoclassical sector of the economics profession. This paradigm, false though it is, is so dominant that if you deviate from its principles, you can hardly get published in the journals that will ensure you have a career. It is a scandalous, despicable situation.

    4. larry

      Banger, if we take seriously John Kenneth Galbraith’s thesis that people want what the corporations tell them they want, and the corporations spend a great deal of money convincing everyone that they want what the corporations can produce, the alteration in attitudes you mention have a more complex causal impetus. Another factor to take into consideration is that in the late sixties/early seventies, the Bastard Keynesian paradigm began to fail – it was neoclassical at its heart, so a somewhat re-burnished paradigm was needed where the individual was at its heart (one of its axioms is the single rational agent, the community has no place in this paradigm). And thus what we have seen has come to pass. The amazing thing is that elites all over the world have taken it on board. Some of them may not even understand the paradigm, but they do understand the economic policies that have become attached to it.

    5. Pepsi

      I have a small dispute with your second paragraph. You have it the wrong way round. The democratic party abandoned unions and the white working class as part of their embrace of finance and neoliberalism.

      1. Banger

        No, I don’t agree. I was there when it happened. The white working class was, in the main, appalled by Civil Rights legislation, feminism and the culture wars by the late sixties. That’s why they applauded when the Chicago cops bloodied my comrades in the streets of Chicago in 68. In ten years they had mainly gone over to the GOP–busing didn’t help either. The liberal Dems were shocked–they still believed in the New Deal and they eventually died out. They turned on the white working class in the late seventies and never looked back.

          1. LifelongLib

            Compared to later presidents (Democratic or Republican) Nixon was a liberal, despite his paranoia and politically convenient exploiting of racial divisions. He proposed (but failed to get) a guaranteed annual income and national health care.

        1. jonboinAR

          You leave out that the “hippies” were, and remain, openly, spittingly disdainful and scornful of the white working class, to an extreme that cannot be even begun or hinted at regarding any other culture group that has ever existed (well, except for the white overlord class) without evoking comparisons of the attackers to those morally equivalent to child molesters. Such faux pas often severely damage or end careers unless followed my much groveling, but steady verbal and ideological aggression by the Left against whites of any economic strata has made such hostility not only acceptable but seemingly de rigueur in many “progressive” circles. As I’ve said before, the Left is quite willfully blind to wonder why “those ignorant, benighted, not quite human, racially hateful and culturally depraved hillbillies don’t want to join us.”

          But as to who first initiated the mutual hostility between the WWC and the Left, you may have to watch the beginning of the movie 2001 or something. My point is that I have never known those speaking ostensibly from the left not to carry on this war with anything less than perfect, unembarrassed enthusiasm.

          1. jonboinAR

            IOW, they turned on the WWC long before the late ’70’s, and before the ’68 Demo Conv. A fair amount of the rebellion of the ’60’s involved attacking the mores of the WWC which were seen as hypocritical, repressive, and otherwise benighted. ’68 was a battle that broke into the open that had been building. The Pigs represented, at least partly, the WWC, which the DFH’s were openly hostile toward, along with the “Man” (White cultural predominance), in general.

          2. Nathanael

            Makin’ stuff up. I’ve known a lot of hippies. They are, and always were, extremely respectful of the working class.

            The white working class spat at them. Egged on by the elite.

            1. jonboinAR

              My family sort of were hippies, or, at least, as committed anti-war activists, closely allied. I grew up in that environment. In the first post I probably implied that the Hippies (leftist, progressive, counter-culture types) “started it”, threw the first sharpened bone, but I don’t know that they did, so that’s not correct. But that’s I’m here to tell you that long before ’77 the Hippies were, at least passive-aggressively (indirectly, pretending to respect and love when it suited), if you will, attacking the mores of white culture in general as stifling, repressive, hypocritical. Man, it was one of the major planks of their movement. They may have pretended love for the working (white) man. They just made fun of most of who he was and burned him in effigy every day. It was a great strategic error, IMO, unless their real goal was less to get rid of scapegoats altogether than to find a new one. But this “loving the working man” was a bunch of transparent, passive-aggressive, BS, in my opinion. I never, even as a child, found it the least bit mysterious why the white working class despised them.

              Banger, perhaps you as well, may have been there as a young adult and movement activist, but I was there also, though more a little kid, and I saw what I saw.

  6. H. George

    They are undermining America, but through their support for unlimited immigration. Their goals of open borders will destroy America far quicker than any political, legal, or ideological influence they have. The fact that Mr. Fraser doesn’t mention the i-word (immigration) means he’s not serious about preserving America.
    The sad thing is, I agree with him on plutocrats; but he’s straining at the gnat while swallowing the camel.

  7. William Neil

    While the average businessman or corporate executive is likely to be pretty non-ideological…”

    Hi Steve. As a reader of both your long and short versions of the history of Wall Street, I kind of choked on this statement, while taking in the rest of the article done in your usually good style and content.
    I disagree with that statement as a theoretical and practical matter, especially from my own lived experience. After all, you previously gave readers one of the most damning indictments of our newly ideological business age in the proposal set before Congress to create a futures market in predicting terrorist events. Even though it was rejected, it was a “signature” proposition that could only have emerged from an age so ideologically infatuated with markets that someone from our higher ranks could put it forth with a straight face.
    Despite everything that has happened since 2008, and despite OWS and Piketty, and this blog, the dominant spectrum shift to the Right has not been reversed.
    One of the best ways to measure this is to closely read the statements that come out of the AFL-CIO upon prime occasions and compare its ideological content to the formulations and policy proposals from the major business lobbying organizations. The AFL-CIO settled for $10.10 per hour at a time when other labor institutions (the SEIU esp.) were out in the streets trying to win $15.00 for the service sector. Read the 2014 Labor Day statement by Richard Trumka and you’ll see that he, by error or deliberate omission, skipped over the 28 million service/retail sector workers earning under $10.00 per hour as he recited other labor heroes working to serve the public.
    On the other hand, on a matter of earth shattering importance, the so called “progressive” business leaders haven’t been able to blunt the effectiveness of the hard Right of their “colleagues” in matters of global warming.
    My sense is that the “average” businessman is still far from accepting even the modest New Deal framework of sharing power with other key non-business constituencies in society, be they governmental regulators, NGO environmental groups, or God forbid, what’s left of organized labor.
    On cultural matters, the stance is more nuanced and complex.

    Reply ↓

    1. larry

      William, the elites do not seem to be able to give up anything at all and unable to negotiate in good faith. The principle of give a little, get a lot in return seems to appear to them as a kind of slippery slope. Maybe it is, but the slope is rather shallow. And, as you point out, some of organized labor appears to have bought into the elite world view, against their own interests. How people can vote against what is obviously contrary to their own interests is beyond me.

      1. LifelongLib

        Working/middle class Americans have been convinced that voting in their own (economic) interests will cause longer-term disaster — if I demand higher wages now the company will go out of business tomorrow, I must allow some other people to get incredibly rich so that I’ll have a chance at a decent life, if everybody gets health care there won’t be enough to go around, etc.

      2. Nathanael

        “William, the elites do not seem to be able to give up anything at all and unable to negotiate in good faith. The principle of give a little, get a lot in return seems to appear to them as a kind of slippery slope.”

        This is the major problem today.

        The UK survived as long as it did becuase its elites kept giving up a little, negotiating in sort-of-good-faith, and gaining a huge amount. The descendants of the elites there from 500 years ago are still doing very well.

        Our current elites are following the Tsarist paradigm, which leads to the guillotine and the firing squad for them, and a brutal war for the rest of us.

  8. EoinW

    Tripping over the problem of how to criticize these billionaires without sounding envious. All people seek to be masters of their own universe. Plus modern western society has empowered the individual beyond his wildest dreams. Personally, a quiet, unassuming universe of one is all I wish to ever rule. Most others are more ambitious, some very ambitious. What right do I have to judge those whose achievements far exceed anything I’d even have the courage to dream of?

    Some will claim these billionaires are the root of all evil in western society. This is simply the average person once again refusing to take responsibility for society’s problems – far more convenient to blame others. Don’t get me wrong as I’m no fan of these robber barons. If it was in my power to eliminate them I’d do it instantly. It’s not in my power. Seeing that most people are happy to let the 1% do whatever they like, so long as their own lives are not disturbed, then really people have gotten what they deserve. We essentially have made a faustian deal with these Masters of the Universe. They get to run things while we get to live our highly consumptive lives. The alternative deal is to put all your trust in the government, let them worry about things while we busy ourselves with our material pleasures. I’m sorry but in life if you make a bad decision you pay for it. If that decision involves your livelihood then you pay a terrible price. We’ve been spoiled for so long we don’t ever expect to pay a price for anything. Reality will reassert itself at some point. Not just for us, for the 1% as well.

  9. Carolinian

    Shorter Steve Fraser: rich people have big egos. I’m not sure it accomplishes much to bay at the moon and rail against human nature even though that is an all too familiar theme of my fellow liberals. Which is not to say shaming these people isn’t useful, but of course they don’t really see us as their peer group and so such jibes are water off a duck. As far as democracy goes, it is not the rich people who are the problem so much as the complacency of the masses who often identify more with the tycoons than those “eat your vegetables” reformers. Donald Trump, after all, had a semi popular TV show.

    Class consciousness is what is needed in this country however that is something the middle class has traditionally found just as scary as the rich do. Once those peasants get going no telling what might happen. The real gulf in America isn’t between the super rich and the working class but between the intellectuals–the creative class–and the workers. A more useful article might look into this.

    1. Nathanael

      No. The gap is really between the superrich and everyone else.

      The interesting gap politically, is between those with false consciousness (people who aren’t superrich but think they are) and those who know they aren’t superrich.

    2. proximity1

      RE: “The real gulf in America isn’t between the super rich and the working class but between the intellectuals–the creative class–and the workers. A more useful article might look into this.”

      We really need remedial education about the sociological phenomnon of “class”. Since intellectual and creative talents are nature’s gifts, endowments, and occur randomly throughout a population–though, yes, what goes by the name “nurture” can and does reinforce (or, as the converse case may be, degrade) these gifts– there simply cannot be, except as a very loose and really useless manner of speaking, either an “intellectual” or “creative” “class”–even if we never mind that tastes in art and invention change. The mere fact that creativity and intellect may be described and various self-selecting groups can exhibit either or both of these does not suffice to make either a class-phenomenon. Otherwise, we’d find intellect and creativity concentrated among a certain class (properly speaking) and notably absent in others. But that isn’t the case. Simón Bolívar and Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette were both of the aristocratic class. Thomas Paine and Frederick Douglass were anything but aristocrats. All were intellectuals and creatively talented revolutionaries. Samuel Clemens came from one class while Henry and William James came from another, as did John Keats and William Shakespeare ( who was actually Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, by common consent among the court of Elizabeth the first, the finest poetic genius of his time). If we forget about art and confine ourselves to scientific genius, Thomas Edison and Isaac Newton had relatively humble origins. Charles Darwin and Betrand Russell were born to aristocratic families. Max Planck, Neils Bohr and J. Robert Oppenheimer came from upper class families. P.A.M. Dirac and Richard Feynman came from very middle-class homes.

  10. wbgonne

    Great essay. I’ll add one point for consideration. It seems to me that the increasing consolidation of wealth creates problems akin to, but even more severe than monopolies. In the past, there were usually competing power centers, with industries pitted against one another and nations competing too. Now with the rise of globalism and transnational conglomerates a unified clot of international wealth has emerged. While you are correct that these individual rich people have individual views and proclivities, in the end their class-based identity trumps all else. There is a reason Teddy Roosevelt went after the trusts, and I’d say those trusts couldn’t hold a candle to the power wielded by today’s worldwide aggregation of extreme wealth.

    1. larry

      While in the Thirties, taking over America was a possible goal, with globalization, if it doesn’t falter in some way, some of those mentioned in Fraser’s list could be said to have the entire world in their sights. This will be a real consolidation of wealth. And dangerous to boot. So much to lose and so many ways to prevent losing it.

      1. Vatch

        No doubt some of the oligarchs have fantasies about world domination. However, external enemies, whether real or imagined, are a very useful tool for maintaining control over people. The enemies provide a justification for methods of controlling people that would be hard to defend in a unified world state. Of course, such methods of control are primarily intended to protect the power and property of the oligarchs from locals, and not from the external enemies.

        Rather than controlling the whole world, it’s better for the oligarchs to divvy things up among Oceania, Eurasia, and East Asia.

  11. Enquiring Mind

    Forbes magazine used to have the following quote on the top of its last page: “With all thy getting, get understanding”.

    That quote went away a while ago, so one may conclude reasonably that there isn’t any understanding to get any longer when one is ‘getting’.

  12. barrisj

    Today’s feudal barons (paradoxically) enjoy much public adulation, in contrast to the “old-school” free-booters of the late 19th and early 20th Century in America, much of which is attributable to “the cult of the CEO”. Financial media and book publishers fall over each other in order to highlight the Jack Welches, Warren Buffets, Rupert Murdochs, et al, as exemplars of the “success of American Capitalism and Entrepreneurial Spirit”, and the general public has bought the whole line. There is a huge barrier in American business mythology that must be transcended before the “99%ers” realise who’s eating their collective lunch, and get stirred up enough to demand significant change in wealth distribution. And the real problem is that that barrier is bolstered by ideological and cultural cement that is so ingrained in Americans that to question it is tantamount to “lack of patriotism” and even “un-American”. “Whoa, are you some kinda ‘socialist’?” is the common response when Big Business practice and its practitioners are harshly criticised, and this mindset has certainly allowed the wholesale looting, income transfers, and maldistribution of the country’s wealth that now confronts the US. “Representative democracy” has only solidified the Plutocrats’ stranglehold on the American economy, as both major parties remain in thrall to their paymasters, who most assuredly are not “the people”, and the leading organs of government conspire together to ensure that condition to continue unabated.

  13. Vatch

    This is an excellent, important article. Thank you.

    I’m a little uncertain about something in the preface:

    “Even though monied dynasties have long had outsized influence in the US, Steve Fraser contends that billionaires and their scions like the Koch brothers, the Walton heirs, and Sheldon Adelson wield far more power than their predecessors and are in the process of remaking America.”

    It seems to me that the current crop of multibillionaires resemble their Gilded Age Pre-1929 forbears quite closely. Do you mean that they wield more power than their recent predecessors, the super-rich of the 1929 to 1981 era? If the current super-rich really are so much more powerful than their Gilded Age predecessors, where in the article does it make this point? I was interrupted several times while reading it, and I may have missed something crucial.

  14. RUKidding

    It’s evident that the 1% detested the New Deal and have worked tirelessly ever since to reverse it. Et Voila! Here we are.

    One thing that the 1% did perhaps differently (?not sure) than before was get their brainwashing ducks in a row. I have witnessed the propagandizing of US citizens over the decades, esp from the late ’60s onwards, with grim disgust. Why are US citizens so willing to fawn over and give up everything to their feudal lords & masters? Well it’s been a d*mned organized campaign, using the best from the Mad Men + various religious organizations & even some Unions to make it happen. It’s no accident that US citizens are good little doggies willing to roll over for Big Daddy. They’ve been carefully taught to like it that way, and they don’t want it to change.

    OTOH, the 1% has, over time, cleverly taken over the govt and made sure all the laws were made to suit them and their needs. Again good doggie citizens bought into this bumpf and rolled over and let it happen believing stupidly in Fairy Tales like Supply Side & Trickle Down would totally inure to their benefit. Ditto(head) for lowering taxes on the wealthy and corporations bc that would “enable” them to create jobs for the rabble. Yeah: ha ha except it’s not funny.

    Attempting to counteract the very slick and polished way this has, essentially, been rammed down our throats was nothing but a fool’s errand. Of course, feet in the street protests are now not just routinely ignored on the M$M, but as we’ve seen the Police State has ramped up the attacks against what we can laughingly refer to as our (now lost) First Amend rights. And so it goes.

    The propaganda machine has also done a trick with all these supermarket line glossies highlighting the alleged fabulous lives of the rich & famous… making it look so very very fabulous and wonderful. Of course, the suicide of Robin Williams and LaWrenn Scott highlight how it’s not always that easy to be in the spotlight, and that those may have been wealthy at one point are now finding it increasingly difficult to get by these days (just like the rest of us schlubs).

    Finally, many of these family dynasties like the Kochs, the Waltons, Mitt RMoney are in the position they are bc of inherited wealth. Dumbfounded Americans buy into ersatz “libertarian” b.s. about “standing on your own two feet,” pulling yourself up by your boot straps, working hard to get ahead and so on. Of course, anyone with half a brain can see that the MOTU aren’t particularly all that bright, and it’s truly questionable just how hard they work. On top of it, most of them won the sperm & egg lottery to be born at least on third plate, while putting forth the fiction that somehow they hit a home run.

    If they weren’t born into fabulous wealth, then they’re mostly white men who were/are willing to either be total criminals (white collar, so doesn’t count anymore) or at least amoral sociopaths. Zuckerberg is an example of this breed – it’s really questionable about him “inventing” Facebook, but he’s never hesitated to use that myth, even though he’s had to pay off others, who probably did the real inventing. Same goes for Bill Gates and Steve No-Jobs. Lots of mythologizing combined with Hollywood/Madison Idolizing to make it seem like these predominantly white men “made it” on their own.

    There may be some wealthy people imbued with some sense of Noblesse Oblige, but there are precious few anymore who ascribe to that anymore. Those with some sense of community obligations – beyond the champaign & caviar “charity” ball circuit – are few and far between. Downton Abbey notwithstanding, most of today’s Billionaires are ruthless narcissistic sociopaths or psychopaths hell-bent on amassing as much fortune as possible, no matter what the consequences may be for anyone else or the planet.

    Guess that’s what happen when greed is enacted into many laws, unfettered, lauded, celebrated, enabled, encouraged and idolized.

  15. Brooklin Bridge

    Excellent piece. In discussions of how we got from there to here between the 1930’s and today, I think the importance of media, particularly television from the 50’s onward is often neglected. The success, pervasiveness and depth of self destructive belief systems follows the technology of media in an iron clasp parallel.

    Mythologies of the self made man were not successful in total zombification the way they are today simply because they were attractive in and of themselves, although that was certainly a factor. The same myths existed in the nineteenth and early twentieth century yet there were far more divergent political and social groups and perspectives than exist today. The elite got the message about the media being the message. long before Marshall McLuhan and possibly even before Kennedy and Tricky Dick had their first TV debate. And they applied all the resources at their disposal, from think tanks to university psychology studies, to amazingly intensive (and expensive) trial and error over the next five decades to get us where we are today.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Thanks for the link. What a piece of work. I loved the part about Bernays seeing himself as Emersonian followed immediately by the disclaimer that Emerson would likely not have reciprocated. Bernays was indeed a pioneer in the modern evil arts and at this point it is the 1% themselves, not just the rabble, that can’t get enough of it.

    1. Nathanael

      Yeah. Thankfully, television just died, thanks to the Internet. So it’s gonna be interestingly different going forward.

  16. Chauncey Gardiner

    Although I agree selectively with the author’s assertion in his headline, I must have missed his answer. I also feel he has narrowly focused on one influential constituency while ignoring others, including some for whom economic considerations are secondary. This is not to say members of those groups and their respective interests don’t overlap in some instances.

    The Senate’s decision yesterday regarding a Constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is disappointing.

  17. Pepsi

    Our most high present collection of billionaires longs for a society of serfs to rule over (no libertarianism intended) because serfs exist, unlike peasants you could say, at the whims of their masters. Much easier to extract rents from people who exist at your mercy than the self sufficient.

  18. Jim Shannon

    Nationalize ALL natural resources and the 90% will not have to pay taxes!
    Then Tax ALL CentaMillionaire$ and Billionaire$ out of existence!
    100% of all assets above $10,000,000 should be confiscated by We The People through the TAX CODE, the same TAX CODE used by them to create the current Class Warfare and enormous wealth now used by them to destroy world peace and prosperity!
    Let democracy begin and put an end to the tyranny of government sanctioned greed!
    $10,000,000 should be enough, but clearly it is not enough for the Malignant Narcissist who want to reign over ALL others. Money is running government and that needs to stop!
    Change the TAX CODE and stop the corruption of and by govenrment!
    Lack of Honest Services by those who govern is the problem, and it is the History of the World.

    1. pepsi

      Nationalizing resources is a great start, but there needs to be a serious structure to stop elites and insiders from capturing those nationalized things for their own benefit. It’s a big problem in rentier states, though not as big a problem as just giving away national resources to random rich fellows as you have when they are not nationalized.

  19. c1ue

    Would be a far better article if all the in depth profiles weren’t of just the “conservative” or “libertarian” families. There are also plenty of “liberal” ones – why wasn’t Gates’ agendas talked about, like his drive to “privatize” schools?

  20. proximity1

    I think our times are relatively quite confused socially, poitically and, in other ways, for so many varied reasons. Resistance movements develop, of course, in different social conditions, but it helps when, for various internal or external reasons, some clarity of purpose arises in some critical mass of people. So, while the 1960s had lots of fractious diversity, the Vietnam war–especially with the advent of the mass draft–focused people’s minds and attentions on a set of issues around which resistance found clarity and common purpose which overcame in the core of its leadership other things which should have divided it in other more confused times.

    When something major recurrs to bring this sort of clarity to our confusion, that may help encourage those who, without it, aren’t able to organize and propel broad or narrowly framed resistance. The sentiments are almost certainly there, latent, among lots of very different people who, so far, remain scattered in time, place and purpose. Authority and leadership and legitimacy have all suffered immensely from serial devastating disappointments. It may take many years–assuming we have that luxury–of slow, incremental chipping away at what has become social and political full-spectrum dominance of the ruling powers before everything coalesces in people and opportunity for resistance. Or, it could happen sooner and more suddenly than anyone is prepared for by some fresh and unexpected crisis that tips the balance in favor of resistance.

    We reamain quite atomized, quite divided in our basic principles, lacking in coherent views of what must change and how it must change before a real durable and effective resistance can form and make gains.

  21. Jeff N

    my dad and grandparents grew up in Pullman. note that my grandparents settled there 20 years after it ceased to be a company-owned town.

    The vast majority of the built-in-1880 Pullman housing still stands today. Every October, there is a weekend with walking tours where 7-10 families open their houses up to visitors on the tour. If you live in the Chicago area, I strongly recommend it. I’ve been attending it for years.
    http://www.pullmanil.org/

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