Here are a few tidbits from the news that cast a serio-comic light on our times.
The Tree Huggers and the Ostriches: Part of the dreary narrative on the environment and climate change is that only extreme, tofu-eating, Birkenstock-wearing nutjobs are worried about the future of the planet and our favorite species – us.
Not so, lots of people worry. But not enough to do anything about if it would alter their lifestyle, change their diet, curb their energy consumption or banish their behemoth trucks and SUVs to the garage. It’s a lot like the gun debate. No one likes gun violence, but only the NRA zealots exercise sufficient clout to influence decision-makers. So no decisions are made.
And yet, the very corporations that have traditionally made addressing climate change impossible are now addressing climate change. Most never had a theological disbelief in the reality, just an economic interest in the status quo. But now some see the writing on the wall. Forces bigger than them are about to change the planetary status quo.
Case in point, Toyota. It has recently announced the aim to cut the emissions that its vehicles produce by 90% by the year 2050, and to engineer similarly drastic cuts in its production processes. The pioneer that brought us the Prius hybrid is choosing to get ahead of its competitors rather than try to play catch up. When it becomes apparent that the economics are going to be in favor of changed patterns of farming, greater density, less sprawl, mass transit and the like, many other corporations will join the club or lose the competition to survive.
Rome on the Potomac: According to the myth we are the greatest democracy in history. A diverse society of free and equal individuals charting their own destiny through self-government – one man, one vote.
Well, not so much. Like Rome after the Republic, we are increasingly ruled by an oligopoly or plutocracy of a few rich families who have outsized power founded on outsized wealth. The Citizens United decision to let money buy elections helped tip the balance further in their favor.
Latest evidence? The news that Super Pacs that permit unlimited donations to campaigns have so far amassed nearly half a billion dollars for the 2016 campaign and over 50 percent of it comes from just 358 families. And even that doesn’t capture the power of a few. Of the 358 families, 200 have given between $100,000 and $250,000, but the real clout belongs to the remaining 158 families which have contributed over $250,000 each – many of them a million, five million and more. Fifty of the 158 are on the Forbes list of billionaires.
Much of this has been reported in “The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Election,” an analysis of publicly reported contributions by New York Times reporters Nicolas Confessore, Sarah Cohen and Karen Yourish. This study does not even touch on millions more from similar sources that floods into opaque pools of influence with the noir name of “dark money.”
Not surprisingly, this big money favors the party of big money. Twenty of the top 158 families have contributed to Democratic candidates versus 138 families who are in the Republican camp. And these birds of a feather flock together in certain industries – 12 in healthcare, 10 in tech, 17 in oil and gas, 15 in real estate and construction, and a whopping 64 in finance.
They also live in close proximity to each other. Many are concentrated in nine wealthy enclaves including Bel Air in California, a few Manhattan high rises, Indian Creek Village in Miami and the eight families who have accounted for $8 million so far that live within blocks of each other in the River Oaks Country Club neighborhood of Houston.
This concentration of wealth and power shows up in an analysis of the coffers of candidates. Marco Rubio has raised 80% of his money from just four donors including a billionaire auto dealer and the tech yachtsman Larry Ellison. Before Scott Walker crashed and burned, 70 percent of his donations also came from only four donor families including an anti-union roofing products billionaire, a Wall Streeter and the heirs to a brewing fortune.
Ted Cruz has received close to 100 percent of his war chest from just three families who hail from the worlds of fracking, hedge fund management and private equity. Hillary Clinton same story, 60% of her donations from nine families. And Jeb has accepted a million or more from 26 donors including a Cuban-American billionaire and a member of the Schwab investment family.
It is obvious that donations on such a scale and in such concentration must have an effect on those receiving them. Donors will claim they don’t expect anything in return. They are just backing candidates who represent their views. But when outsize fortunes make up an outsize portion of the candidate’s campaign funding, those running will be inclined to embrace the views of the donors or find themselves out of business.
In a world of politics dominated by big money, only candidates espousing views favorable to big money will attract big money. And when elected they will deliver what they promised. This isn’t hypothetical. The evidence is in most laws passed by Congress, and in those not passed, and can be seen in every loophole, bracket and deduction added to the tax code. The poor and working class didn’t insist on subsidies for sugar or oil or special treatment for capital gains or carried interest. Money talks, and candidate don’t just listen, they sit up and beg.