President Barack Obama is seen through the viewfinder of a video camera. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Shorn of our media’s preoccupation with personality conflict, tabloid gossip and cliché, the fundamental shape of American politics looks pretty simple these days. Campaigns cost money. The people with the money to pay for them are extremely wealthy. And in exchange for their money, they want more money. They get it by ensuring that the politicians who are elected write laws to their advantage (and, lately, that the politicans also appoint judges who will keep it all secret).
According to the textbooks, to say nothing of the First Amendment, the job of the journalist is to expose these arrangements. And this does happen. But it is rare. Far more frequently, we find journalists running interference for the people behind these schemes, sometimes ignoring the central role that money plays in pretty much every calculation, and sometimes attempting to sell the notion that all this is actually a good thing.
For decades, with virtually nobody in the mainstream media even noticing, the wealthiest 1/100th of 1 percent of Americans were able to use their financial power to induce Congress to rewrite the rules of our nation’s social and economic order. Today, however, thanks to the economic crisis of 2008, coupled with the surprising success of Occupy Wall Street, it is increasingly difficult to avoid seeing the fruits of their efforts.
The income of the top 1 percent of Americans increased by 256 percent between 1979 and 2006, while the lowest quintile saw its income rise by an average of just 11 percent during the same period. As the Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz has noted, this same 1 percent now enjoys almost “a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent…. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.” What’s more, while the party in the penthouse grows more and more decadent, the ladder upstairs is being pulled out for the folks who might like a hand up. Recent studies have found a much lower level of social and economic mobility than exists in countries that are our economic competitors. According to a 2006 study, 42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults. This is a much higher rate than those of the allegedly class-stratified nations of Europe: Denmark’s level is only 25 percent, while terrible old Great Britain’s is just 30 percent. Roughly 62 percent of Americans (male and female) raised in the top fifth get to stay in the top two-fifths. Likewise, 65 percent of those born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths.
One can see the manner in which the system operates in anecdotal evidence, too. Check out the entertainment news this week and you’ll see that Marvel’s The Avengers had a $207 million opening weekend in the United States—the largest in film history. How is it, then, that New Mexico’s politicians had to subsidize the film’s producers to the tune of $22 million in tax credits?