April 26, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: This Week in the Oligarchy

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Conspiracy theorists have every reason to feel vindicated these days with various empirical studies confirming conclusively their most outlandish conceptions of political reality. Take, for example, the recent study published by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern regarding the extent to which America can actually claim to be a functioning representative democracy. 


Their query was: who actually controls political decisions in America, majorities of average citizens or a small group of economic elites?  And their conclusion:

"When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it."

Their money shot is as follows:

Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

To arrive at their startling conclusions, Givens & Co. amassed a great deal of data concerning the policy preferences of the general public in America on 1,779 discrete issues over the period 1981 to 2002, and then compared these findings to the actual policies adopted by the federal government.  What they found was that the preferences of "economic elites" dominated the actual outcome of policy contests; to the extent that John Q. Public is vindicated by federal policy, it's more or less a coincidence.  The general public is represented by its Congress when its preferences overlap with those of the economic elites who actually own the Congress.

What the good professors are telling us, in other words, is that America has the bells and whistles of a democracy, with regular elections, TV ad campaigns purveying holographic images of candidates, and all of that; however, we don't actually have a representative democracy.  We have a kind of feudal or oligarchic system, a government run by monied elites.

I hope that the study is brought up to date.  I doubt that the conclusions will change at all. If anything, they will be strengthened, particularly in light of the decisions of The United States Supreme Court, Incorporated on questions of campaign funding.

You may wonder, for example, about a couple of more contemporary political issues.  Consider Congress's refusal to allow Medicare to engage in bulk-buying discounts with drug companies.  That may seem like a head-scratcher.  Why would the United States, which has chronic budget problems (relying as the Treasury does on the extent to which America's wealthy will allow their incomes to be taxed), disable itself from using its economic clout in favor of Big Pharma's interests?  Well, now you have your answer.

Or: even after the Democrats seized majority control over the House in 2006, with Nancy Pelosi at the helm, why did the Iraq war continue to receive its funding?  Recall that by 2006 everyone knew that all justifications for the invasion of Iraq were well and publicly known to be entirely fraudulent. Iraq posed no threat to the security of the United States.  Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was not the arch-mastermind behind 9/11.  So why did the Democrats continue to give George W. Bush all the money he needed in order to keep fighting a war which a substantial majority of Americans opposed?

A final note: why does Congress allow the banking industry to charge interest rates of 19-29% on credit card balances?  Why not a usury law which caps interest rates at the 10-year Treasury bond rate plus 5%, in line with other usury statutes?

The answer to all these riddles is the same. Congress works for an economic elite to the exclusion of American commoners, and pro bono publico laws are passed only if they also favor this elite. 

It follows that voting, per se, is pointless.  What makes more sense is to vote a straight party line and then form public interest PACs to buy the politicians of one's own party.  For example, an Anti-War political action committee could insist that American military forces cannot be committed by the Executive Branch to a foreign theater without a declaration of war (as the Constitution requires). Money that would otherwise be wasted by donating to individual candidates in elections (who can never be trusted, simply by electing them, to do the right thing) could be invested in such single-issue PACs.  A candidate once elected could then be purchased with such PAC money on a quid pro quo basis, as Big Pharma and defense contractors purchase theirs.  This is not entirely fanciful.  AARP and labor unions (what's left of them) operate on this principle and achieve results. But the scattered, atomized, powerless individual American, even if part of an overwhelming majority, has no chance of reaching his representative solely on the basis of persuasion; thus, circulating petitions, flooding Congressional offices with phone calls, posting on Facebook and the rest of it is entirely useless.

We owe a substantial debt to Professors Gilens and Page for this bracing dose of empirical proof. American democracy does not actually exist.  That is their conclusion, and they lay out the evidence. Forget the "quality" of the representatives you are electing.  In general, they're all pretty unimpressive anyway.  Look for the best bargain.