THE GAMES OLIGARCHS PLAY

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

In three previous posts, I’ve summarized the three major systemic changes identified by Robert Reich in his latest book, The System. These systemic changes have occurred since 1980 and have shifted power, both economic and political, to a small group of very wealthy Americans. As a result, our democracy operates in many ways like an oligarchy. (Oligarchy “refers to a government of and by a few exceedingly rich people or families who … have power … . Oligarchs may try to hide their power … . But no one should be fooled. Oligarchs wield power for their own benefit.” pages 13-14) [1]

Reich’s three systemic changes have shifted power:

  • From a broad set of corporate stakeholders to shareholders (see this previous post for details),
  • From workers and their unions to large employers (see this previous post for details), and
  • From manufacturing and a broad set of stakeholders in our economy to the financial sector and Wall Street (see this previous post for details).

A dramatic result of these shifts in power has been rapidly growing inequality in income and wealth. A cause and symptom of this inequality is that a small number of wealthy people dominate as the sources of funding for the campaigns of elected officials. These are the oligarchs. In the 2016 election cycle, the wealthiest 25,000 people in America (0.01% of the population) made a record-breaking 40% of all campaign contributions – up from 15% in 1980. Over the period from 2009 through 2020, twelve very wealthy individuals and their spouses gave a total of $3.4 billion to federal candidates and political groups. This is over 7% of the total money raised. The 100 highest giving zip codes hold less than 1% of the U.S. population, but were responsible for 20% of the $45 billion that federal candidates and political groups raised from 2009 through 2020. The increasing amount and share of campaign money coming from oligarchs was accelerated by a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including the 2010 Citizens United decision. [2]

This high level of campaign spending gives these oligarchs access to our elected officials that you and I don’t have. When one of them calls or requests a meeting, that call is answered or that meeting is scheduled. Because their voices are heard and elected officials want the money to keep flowing to them, these oligarchs generally get the policies they want and that benefit them.

Throughout the book, Reich uses Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan, as an example or case study of how the oligarchs operate; how they have abandoned public responsibility and advance their self-interest. Dimon appears to believe that corporations do have social responsibilities and not just responsibility to maximize returns for shareholders (as pure shareholder capitalism asserts). Dimon touts JPMorgan’s financing of $2 billion in affordable housing annually, its lending in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and to small businesses, its 5-year $350 million job training program, and its $500 million AdvancingCities initiative to help financially-strapped large cities.

Although JPMorgan’s social responsibility efforts are notable, they are small relative to the size of the problems they are tackling and small in comparison to JPMorgan’s yearly profits of $30 billion. Moreover, they are contradicted by other actions of JPMorgan and Dimon. Dimon has not supported raising the minimum wage or paying all JPMorgan workers a livable wage, which would do a lot to help many of the people targeted by JPMorgan’s philanthropy, despite his 2018 compensation package worth $31 million and his wealth of around $1.5 billion. In addition, JPMorgan paid $55 million in 2017 to settle charges that it discriminated against minority mortgage borrowers.

Furthermore, Dimon personally lobbied hard for the 2017 tax cut that reduced the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% and increased JPMorgan’s profits by billions of dollars annually. The tax cut increased the federal deficit by $190 billion annually; a figure that has to be covered, sooner or later, by cuts in federal government programs or increased taxes on others.

JPMorgan, with Dimon in charge, paid $13 billion to settle claims that it defrauded borrowers and investors in the mortgage scandal that led to the 2008 economic collapse. In 2019, it required forced arbitration for credit card disputes, preventing aggrieved customers from suing in court or through a class action lawsuit.

Although Dimon publicly opposed President Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, JPMorgan is the biggest bank investor in fossil fuels, to the tune of $196 billion between 2016 and 2018. A 2019 report by an environmental coalition named Dimon the “world’s worst banker of climate change.” JPMorgan is also the largest U.S. bank providing financial services to the gun industry and loans to gun buyers.

So, a few hundred million dollars a year of philanthropy is a good investment in public relations for a wealthy Wall Street bank that has had numerous ethical lapses and that was a significant contributor to the economic collapse in 2008, resulting in millions of people losing their jobs, homes, and savings, while it got hundreds of millions of dollars in bailouts.

However, Dimon and JPMorgan are just one example. In 2019, the Business Roundtable, in an effort to counter unfavorable publicity about corporations being solely focused on benefiting shareholders, issued a highly publicized corporate responsibility statement signed by CEOs of 181 major U.S. corporations (including Dimon) stating they believed in “a fundamental commitment to all our stakeholders.” The statement included a commitment to treat employees fairly, support communities, and embrace sustainable practices. [3]

However, actions speak louder than words. Just weeks after the statement appeared, Whole Foods, a subsidiary of Amazon, announced it would cut health benefits for its part-time workers, despite multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, having signed the corporate responsibility statement. During the pandemic, billionaires did very well and big corporations did well (45 of the 50 biggest were profitable). Despite this, 27 of the 50 big corporations laid off workers, totaling more than 100,000 workers. For example, Walmart, whose CEO was a corporate responsibility statement signer, distributed $10 billion to shareholders while laying off over 1,200 workers. [4]

If the CEOs (i.e., oligarchs) signing the corporate responsibility statement were serious about their commitment to all stakeholders, they would support federal legislation to make those commitments laws (i.e., legally binding). Or, at least, they’d pay a fair share of taxes to the federal government so it could support workers, communities, and a sustainable economy. However, in 2020, 55 of the largest U.S. corporations paid no federal income tax on $40 billion in profits. Moreover, they received more than $3 billion in federal tax rebates, giving them an effective tax rate of negative 9%; a bit different than the stated tax rate of 21%. Twenty-six of them have paid no federal income tax since the 2017 tax cut (and received $5 billion in rebates) while generating $77 billion of profits.

In actuality, the corporate responsibility statement appears to be part of a PR campaign by oligarchs that, along with corporate philanthropy, is designed to slow or stop proposed legislation and regulations that would require oligarchs and their corporations to:

  • Share their power and wealth by treating workers and communities more fairly, and
  • Engage in sustainable business practices.

Reich quotes the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as noting that “ The powerful are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice.”

These are the games that oligarchs play to try to hide their power and to try to fool the rest of us into believing that they care about fairness and social responsibility.

[1]      Reich, R.B., 2020, The System: Who rigged it, how we fix it. NY, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

[2]      Beckel, M., retrieved 4/21/21, “Outsized influence,” Issue One (https://www.issueone.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Issue-One-Outsized-Influence-Report-final.pdf)

[3]      Business Roundtable, 8/19/19, “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation,” https://system.businessroundtable.org/app/uploads/sites/5/2021/02/BRT-Statement-on-the-Purpose-of-a-Corporation-Feburary-2021-compressed.pdf

[4]      MacMillan, D., Whoriskey, P., & O’Connell, J., 12/16/20, “America’s biggest companies are flourishing during the pandemic and putting thousands of people out of work,” The Washington Post

4 thoughts on “THE GAMES OLIGARCHS PLAY

  1. Hi John, Just read this one. Distressing to say the least. Bob

    On Sat, Apr 24, 2021 at 7:04 AM Lippitt’s Policy and Politics Blog wrote:

    > John A. Lippitt posted: “Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense > to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the > key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing. In > three previous posts, I’ve summarized the three major sy” >

    1. Yup. Whether it’s a corporatocracy or an oligarchy doesn’t really make any difference. It’s government of, by, and for the rich. We the people need to assert our power, support our progressive leaders in elected offices, and push the Biden administration to continue to stand up for working, low and moderate income people.

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