Recommended: Thomas Edsall on the persistence of inequality; Vanity Fair talks to Priebus

Here are two great pieces I recommend — but I’ll restrain myself from stealing too many of the facts and arguments they contain and just urge you to click through and read them.

As usual, for me at least, is the weekly Thomas Edsall column in the online New York Times. Headlined: “Why Is It So Hard for Democracy to Deal with Inequality?” Edsall tackles a deep and powerful question.

Elections are about more things than economics. Still, at first glance it’s hard to understand how the wealthy few can manipulate government so effectively to work in their economic interests, which are generally not the same as the interests of the bottom 90 – or even 99! – percent.

Edsall rounds up a number of answers, but I’ll just pass along a list of five possible explanations by the authors of a scholarly article titled  “Why Hasn’t Democracy Slowed Rising Inequality?

Economic theory, they wrote, holds that “inequality should be at least partially self-correcting in a democracy” as “increased inequality leads the median voter to demand more redistribution.” But in recent decades, wealth has become more and more concentrated at the top. The scholars cited five possible explanations.

“First, growing bipartisan acceptance of the tenets of free market capitalism. Second, immigration and low turnout among the poor resulting in an increasingly affluent median voter. Third, “rising real income and wealth has made a larger fraction of the population less attracted to turning to government for social insurance.” Fourth, the rich escalated their use of money to influence policy through campaign contributions, lobbying and other mechanisms. And finally, the political process has been distorted by polarization and gerrymandering in ways that “reduce the accountability of elected officials to the majority.”

If you mull that over and want to know more, click through to the Edsall column.

My second recommendation is this Vanity Fair piece by Chris Whipple based on his interviews with Reince Priebus, who served as White House chief of staff for the first six months of the Trump administration.

Whipple is working on a book about chiefs of staff, and has interviewed most of the recent ones. Priebus at first insisted on an off-the-record interview, but, for slightly hard-to-imagine reasons, changed his mind and allowed Whipple to quote him. (Whipple also got on-the-record stuff from Steve Bannon.)

Priebus, who said he “still loves” Trump, nonetheless portrays a White House in constant chaos mostly because Trump sows chaos wherever he goes and, when things go agley, blames everyone except himself. When the bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act went down in flames, Bannon said he knew Trump was going to blame, and fire, Priebus. From the article:

Priebus soon became a target of Trump’s ritual belittling as the president took to referring to him as ‘Reincey.’ At one point, he summoned Priebus — to swat a fly. Priebus seemed to have been willing to endure almost any indignity to stay in Trump’s favor. There was that scene right out of The Manchurian Candidate when, at a Cabinet meeting, the president’s most powerful advisers virtually competed to see who could be more obsequious; Priebus won hands down, declaring what a “blessing” it was to serve the president.

It didn’t work.

The full Whipple/Priebus/Vanity Fair piece is here.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/15/2018 - 03:38 pm.

    One possible flaw

    in the discussions by people like Edsall is using college education as a token for the upper economic classes. This overlooks a major demographic shift over the past couple of generations.
    When I was growing up (back in the fifties) about a tenth of the American population had a college education — they were an elite.
    Now a majority of Americans have taken at least some college courses; they view themselves as at least potentially upper class economically. If they are not so now, they aspire to it. Thus, they tend to identify their interests with those of the real elites rather than with their actual economic status.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/15/2018 - 06:27 pm.


    Depressing, but interesting reading, both pieces.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 02/16/2018 - 11:08 pm.

    And for a deeper economic analysis

    I’d recommend Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel economist)
    “The Great divide : unequal societies and what we can do about them”

  4. Submitted by John Evans on 02/19/2018 - 12:47 am.

    Edsall’s fascinating article

    Thanks for the recommendation, it’s an interesting piece.

    I would pay the most attention to Dean Baker’s point of view, as Edsall has presented it. You seem to be assuming, as Baker says of Piketty, that the growing income inequality is the natural result of acceptance of “the tenets of free-market capitalism,” and that fixing it would require a government intervention to capture some of that income flowing to the rich and transfer it to the poor. But that is mistaken.

    As Baker explains, this upward income flow is the result of a series of political decisions to rig the economy that way, to badly impair the functioning of free markets, in violation of the tenets of capitalism.

    Markets actually require a lot of maintenance in the form of regulation to keep them from spiraling into the kind of crony-klepto-oligopolies we see today, which as Baker puts it, are rigged to funnel income and wealth upward at an increasingly furious rate. This happens in violation of those free-market principles and allows the major players to profit by actually hindering the competitiveness of their markets by rigging them.

    When you fail to regulate the financial system, you get disasters like 2008, but you also increase the ability of the largest players to rig their market so they can secure higher rates of return by disadvantaging the smaller players.

    When you fail to enforce anti-monopoly laws, you get major monopolists like Comcast, which provides internet service to us that is slower, less reliable and much more expensive the rest of the developed world gets.

    An increasing percentage of profits of the largest corporations do not come from the productive use of capital, but are gained by monopoly power in the market, or “monopoly rents.” That’s what a big chunk of your cable bill really represents (though they don’t itemize it that way).

    And it’s also why the lion’s share of the tax cuts that these corporations demanded is being used for stock buy-backs and acquisitions, rather than for productive investments that could create jobs and increase wages.

    The mass communications markets are particularly important because they form the media-sphere in which the conversation of our national politics occurs. A much larger percent of our media is owned by a handful of enormous companies that are more determined and technologically better equipped to twist our politics to their financial advantage.

    I’m not just talking about the propaganda shop at Fox. For instance, the networks that Comcast owns (NBC, MSNBC) refused to cover the net neutrality issue at all, and the other networks barely mentioned it. Major media outlets consistently mischaracterize issues regarding business, regulation, markets and the economy. Instead we get a lot of confusing, divisive infotainment that serves to distract us, mainly from exactly this rigging process.

    This creates the biggest schism in American politics. The Democrats in power within the party only want to talk about racism, sexism and guns because they have been complicit in this process of rigging the economy. I’m talking about the Clintons, Obama, Schumer, Pelosi, etc. They are opposed in this by their left wing, which includes Sanders, Warren, Ellison, Pocan, etc.

    The Republicans in power have alienated their own populist wing and will continue to do so as it becomes clearer to working people that all the rigging that their leadership has done is not producing any improvements in their lives or in their children’s prospects.

    As we wring our hands over political science issues, and bemoan the role of money in electoral politics, the consolidation of monopoly power over our media-sphere may be the biggest obstacle to fixing our politics, our economy and our impaired democracy.

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