Friday, February 14, 2014
Two Plutocrats No Longer Hide Contempt For America
Some of the wealthiest among us have taken the gloves off. They have just declared war on the right of a free people to govern themselves and the promise of upward mobility. Tom Perkins told the Commonwealth Club that voting rights in a democracy should be apportioned by tax burden, commensurate with personal wealth. I would have agreed with his criticisms of the welfare state up until he lost me with that one comment. Bud Konheim over at luxury clothing maker Nicole Miller thinks Americans making $35K/year would be okay living in India. Hey dude, if they move to India they definitely won't be making $35K anymore.
The Yahoo Daily Ticker crew did a good job deconstructing both statements. They did this without saying the word "plutocracy," which still frightens mainstream media players. We can fear something less once we name it. I have criticized plutocracy on my blog for the imbalance it brings to our systems of justice and politics. I have also recognized the stabilizing function that hereditary elites play in the stewardship of important cultural institutions and unifying symbols. Our nation's Founders were largely plutocratic and wrote a balanced Constitution that would prevent factions from appropriating wealth. The rule of law mattered back then. Today's plutocrats appear to be inching away from the Founders' consensus on governance.
A minority opinion is emerging among the top 1% that democracy and upward mobility are no longer a fitting vision for uniting Americans. Mr. Perkins and Mr. Konheim appear to have made unscripted remarks, so I can't qualify these comments as deliberate trial balloons that elite institutions have vetted. I'll wait for the formal policy papers to sneak out of the usual think tanks. The comments' spontaneity makes them all the more genuine as deeply held beliefs. I don't know if a Rockefeller or Carnegie of days gone by would have made such comments in public or kept them confined to the gentlemen's club humidor room. Perhaps the indiscipline of their release shows a decline in the quality of our elite from the time when WASPs ruled America. The new meritocratic elite is learning to have contempt for America.
Democracy and upward mobility have largely been myths in America. They were useful myths as long as a WASP elite could point to successful exemplars of each as proof that America worked as a nation. Joseph Campbell knew that myths have power. These myths, and the flexibility of public institutions, enabled America to maximize its amazing gifts of geography and natural resources. Viable myths combined with free markets and expansive elections to generate prosperity. The obvious displeasure our elite now shows with these myths implies they are searching for new unifying myths, in the service of a new definition of prosperity. Most Americans will not be comfortable being left out of that definition. There are at least two plutocrats among us who are betting that we won't care.