Monday, February 27, 2012

The American Plutocracy

Recently, the New York Times praised Chelsea Clinton's current successes and commitment to public service. Ms. Clinton is the daughter of current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton.

The Times reported Ms. Clinton is making the sacrifice of leading us because she feels a responsibility to serve the public good and "hopes to make a positive, productive contribution."

Ms. Clinton's newsworthy steps toward public service, noted by the NYT, include: meeting people such as Elton John and Richard Gere, taking a public role with her father's Clinton Global Initiative, presenting an award to her mother at Diane Von Furstenberg's International Women's Day event, and hosting her father's 65th birthday at a Clinton Foundation Hollywood benefit with fellow guests Lady Gaga and Bono.

Ms. Clinton's board of directors seat at media conglomerate IAC, alongside former Disney CEO Michael Eisner and former Warner Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman, was also described. Ms. Clinton's IAC position pays $50,000 a year, plus a $250,000 grant of restricted stock. Mentioned too was Ms. Clinton's joining NBC News as a special correspondent, after her advisers arranged interviews with top network executives.

The NYT didn't question why a 30-ish year old (with no significant media or management experience) joins the board of a multi-billion dollar media corporation, with compensation qualifying Ms. Clinton (by my quick calculation) for America's top 1 percent, for only about 1 to 2 hours of work per week. The IAC position clearly raises the issue of whether Ms. Clinton is being paid for her skills, or access to her family.

The Washington Post found a pattern of members of Congress using tax dollars to benefit their families (e.g., tax money to entities represented by lobbyist relatives).

Western media criticize the favorable treatment received by offspring of the politically important outside the U.S., particularly the princelings in China. In a vicious circle, princelings' access to powerful people (derived from their parents) gains them prestigious private-sector positions (with high pay for little work). These prestigious private-sector positions justify public-sector leadership positions, which justify even more lucrative private-sector opportunities, and so on. Princelings insist a sense of noblesse oblige draws them to leadership. A fawning domestic press facilitates this cycle by treating princelings as celebrities. Companies granting princelings lucrative positions expect a return on their investment, through influence with (or at least access to) the government. Even if not overtly corrupt, this nepotistic approach erodes leaders' legitimacy (making it difficult to govern), and prevents the best qualified from leading (resulting in less competent institutions). Most corrosively, government by princelings sends a message that putting personal and family interests ahead of society's interests is acceptable.

Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index 2011 ranks the U.S. as more corrupt than Qatar, a small Middle Eastern state ruled by a hereditary monarchy with a tradition of nepotism. (U.S. ranks 24th, behind Qatar ranked 23rd and far behind New Zealand, ranked 1st.)

According to the New York Times, 1 percent of the population owns almost one-third of the nation's wealth. Whenever this is pointed out, conservative commentators level accusations of promoting class warfare against the rich. There is class warfare, but it is directed at the working class, not the rich. In the past few decades, the working class has not participated in economic growth like the rich. The rich get richer and the working class continues to increasingly struggle from paycheck to paycheck.

As the working class is painfully aware, they are being squeezed economically from all sides. The annual raise cannot be relied upon. Fewer employers provide medical insurance and retirement benefits. Workers are told to save for their own retirement by buying stock and mutual funds. These savings can be decimated by the vagaries of the stock market. The ability to make these investments is reduced by a paycheck that does not keep pace with inflation.

Meanwhile, many CEOs receive millions in annual compensation. According to Forbes magazine, the CEO of United Health Group received $101 million in one year.

America is fast becoming a nation of people who sell products and services to each other but do not produce anything, while the bankers get rich by money manipulation. According to Politifact Ohio, during a 10-year period, 56,190 U.S. factories have closed.

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