THE PLUTOCRATS’ ECONOMIC CON

Since the late 1970s, a concerted effort has been made by right-wing, wealthy elites to promote a new brand of “free market” capitalism, which I refer to as plutocratic economics. [1] Their broad, well-funded initiative was successful in reversing and undermining the progressive, managed capitalism that was put in place in the 1930s and 40s in response to the failure of the largely unregulated markets that led to the Great Depression.

After 40 years of experience with these plutocratic policies, the results are in: they don’t work. Wealthy elites (the plutocrats) have benefited substantially, but the consequences for the economy, workers, and the middle class have been very negative.

The plutocrats’ basic argument is that markets work and government doesn’t. They assert that government is inherently incompetent, in part because it and its regulators have been “captured” by the special interests they were supposed to regulate. [2]

The wealthy individuals and large, often multi-national, corporations pushing plutocratic economics invested in politicians, academicians, think tanks, and advocacy organizations to promote their theories, rationales, and policies. Academicians and think tanks were hired and funded to give a scholarly veneer and rationale to what otherwise would have been seen for what it was – a raw power grab. The resultant public policies greatly benefited the self-interest of the wealthy elites and corporate executives.

On the political front, the plutocrats use multiple strategies to achieve their policy goals. They employ lobbyists who work to convince policy makers to support their policies. They place supporters (often former corporate employees) within the government bureaucracy (a.k.a. the revolving door). They make campaign contributions and “independent” expenditures on behalf of candidates to elect supportive individuals and to buy access to elected officials. They promote trade policies and a type of globalization that undermines American workers. They got U.S. policy makers to choose trade policy options that put the interests of multi-national corporations and investors first and those of workers last. [3]

Proponents of the plutocratic economics promised that markets and businesses would regulate themselves for the good of all, that markets would be more efficient without government regulation, and that social goals could be more effectively achieved by using market forces. They also argued that social programs that supported low income workers and families were inefficient, unnecessary, and provided disincentives to work hard and make positive contributions to our economy.

In concert with their economic and political theories, the plutocrats pushed to reduce progressive taxation, eliminate government regulation and anti-trust enforcement (which had limited the size and marketplace power of corporations), and dramatically weaken public programs that provide support for workers and a safety net (including the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, unions, and welfare payments to the poor). Their trade policies allowed U.S. multi-national corporations to ship five million jobs overseas over the last 20 years. As a result, multi-national corporations now have a smaller portion of their global workforce in the U.S. than the portion of their sales that are in the U.S. [4]

The plutocrats and their hired experts developed rationales for their policies based on economic theories and assumptions about markets that were not supported by actual experience (and have since been disproved by actual experience). For example, they assumed ideal and efficient markets where perfect information was available to buyers and sellers, where prices were set solely by supply and demand, where sellers and buyers were numerous and no one had any marketplace power, and where there were no significant externalities, such as pollution. Supply-side economics is a classic case of an economic theory with no actual evidence for it and with substantial evidence refuting it today. It claims that cutting taxes, particularly on the wealthy and businesses, will 1) stimulate economic growth and 2) do so to such an extent that government tax revenue will actually increase. Despite multiple experiences where tax cuts have been enacted and have not produced the promised effects, the plutocrats still use supply-side theory to justify tax cuts, as they did successfully with the December 2017 $150 billion a year tax cut.

It is important to note, that despite the rhetoric, markets under plutocratic economics are NOT actually free markets. All markets require rules to function, such as rules about ownership of property including patents, copyrights, and other protections for intellectual property; laws governing contracts and courts to enforce them; standards for what constitutes unfair competitive practices; laws and courts to determine liability for accidents and harm from products; and standards for credit, debt, bankruptcy, financial transactions, and investments.

The issue for policy makers is how the markets’ rules balance the power and interests of various parties. The bottom-line questions are who makes the rules and who benefits. For 40 years, plutocratic economic policies have put returns to shareholders (i.e., primarily wealthy investors) and, by implication, corporate executives, ahead of the interests of workers and also of investment in a company’s future. As a result, compensation for workers has been flat while their productivity has continued to grow. Overall, the result of these plutocratic policies has been dramatic growth in income and wealth inequality, leaving the U.S. with the most unequal income distribution of any rich democracy. [5]

Future posts will 1) summarize the evidence that plutocratic economic policy has failed, 2) discuss the politics of plutocratic economics and how the plutocrats have reacted as the failure of their policies has become clear, 3) review the harm that plutocratic economics has done to our democracy, and 4) identify progressive policies that are needed to reverse the harmful effects of plutocracy.

[1]      Technically, among policy wonks and economists, this form of capitalism has been labeled neoliberal economics. This is confusing because liberal in the economic world means something quite different than liberal means in common political usage. Although this is a bit of an oversimplification, liberal in economics refers to individualism – an every person for him or herself approach.

[2]      Kuttner, R., 6/25/19, “Neoliberalism: Political success, economic failure,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/neoliberalism-political-success-economic-failure)

[3]      Kuttner, R., 6/4/19, “Warren’s astonishing plan for economic patriotism,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/warrens-astonishing-plan-economic-patriotism)

[4]      Tyler, G., 1/10/19, “The codetermination difference,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/codetermination-difference)

[5]      Tyler, G., 1/10/19, see above

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