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Friday, June 17, 2011

Plutocracy


- The Grasberg Mine complex from space

Denny has a post on the economy with a video that's worth a watch. One tidbit of info from the video ... the top 1% used to take home about 10% of the total income, now it takes home more than 20%, and the super-rich have 40% of the nation's entire wealth. All this money at the top has given the super-rich lots of political power ...

When I heard this, I realized I lived in a plutocracy :(.

[...] plutocracy is a reference to a disproportionate influence the wealthy have on political process in contemporary society: for example, according to Kevin Phillips, author and political strategist to U.S. President Richard Nixon, the United States is a plutocracy in which there is a "fusion of money and government." The wealthy minority exerts influence over the political arena via many methods .... Within government bureaucracy, there is often the problem of a revolving door: the employees of government regulatory bodies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States, often transition to and from employment with the same companies they are supposed to regulate.

This reminded me of a past post I had on an American company that runs the largest gold mine in the world in New Guinea, and which has guys like Henry Kissinger on the board (read more about Kissinger and the mine at National Catholic Reporter). So often I hear justifications for our involvement in other countries' politics based on the needs of the downtrodden - well, there are downtrodden people in New Guinea who've needed our help for some time but we've been doing the opposite of helping them. Here's just the beginning of a quite long article from 2005 in the New York Times that describes how the rich and the powerful in our government are disenfranchising people and destroying the environment for gold ....

Below a Mountain of Wealth, a River of Waste
By JANE PERLEZ and RAYMOND BONNER
Published: December 27, 2005

JAKARTA, Indonesia - The closest most people will ever get to remote Papua, or the operations of Freeport-McMoRan, is a computer tour using Google Earth to swoop down over the rain forests and glacier-capped mountains where the American company mines the world's largest gold reserve.

With a few taps on a keyboard, satellite images quickly reveal the deepening spiral that Freeport has bored out of its Grasberg mine as it pursues a virtually bottomless store of gold hidden inside. They also show a spreading soot-colored bruise of almost a billion tons of mine waste that the New Orleans-based company has dumped directly into a jungle river of what had been one of the world's last untouched landscapes.

What is far harder to discern is the intricate web of political and military ties that have helped shield Freeport from the rising pressures that other gold miners have faced to clean up their practices. Only lightly touched by a scant regulatory regime, and cloaked in the protection of the military, Freeport has managed to maintain a nearly impenetrable redoubt on the easternmost Indonesian province as it taps one of the country's richest assets.

Months of investigation by The New York Times revealed a level of contacts and financial support to the military not fully disclosed by Freeport, despite years of requests by shareholders concerned about potential violations of American laws and the company's relations with a military whose human rights record is so blighted that the United States severed ties for a dozen years until November.

Company records obtained by The Times show that from 1998 through 2004, Freeport gave military and police generals, colonels, majors and captains, and military units, nearly $20 million. Individual commanders received tens of thousands of dollars, in one case up to $150,000, according to the documents. They were provided by an individual close to Freeport and confirmed as authentic by current and former employees ......



12 Comments:

Anonymous David Smith said...

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"All this money at the top has given the super-rich lots of political power"

Then perhaps it would be good to make them the target of our lobbying, rather than of our vitriol. Vinegar and honey.

Even in a rigidly communitarian society, some people will have lots more money and lots more power than the rest. It's not the fact that they have it that's in question but whether or not they're using their it to help make life better for all of us.

.

12:55 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

But money shouldn't make a person more politically powerful in a democracy - everyone should have equal (opportunities for) power. Tempting as it is to think of manipulating all that power for good, I don't want to talk them into using their power for good but make it so they don't have inordinate power at all.

1:18 AM  
Anonymous David Smith said...

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Crystal, a few people will always have much more power than most, in any society. Until human nature is abolished, that's inevitable.

.

1:50 AM  
Anonymous David Smith said...

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Sorry for the second post, but just realized that I'd sort of missed your main point.

Money and power go together. A wealthy person is as likely to be powerless as a tree is to be leafless. (It's likely to work in the other direction, too, but not inevitable.)

Societies form aristocracies as naturally as they choose leaders.

.

2:00 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

We live under a plutocracy for sure, which is why I get so frustrated when people throw the "socialism" epithet around in this country so carelessly. I'm not sure most of the people who do that could even define the term properly. Sadly, I'm nearly certain that most couldn't define "plutocracy" properly even though they are struggling with the effects of it every day.

Crys, I know that you applauded the Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision at the time as a victory for free speech, but it was an utter catastrophe, handing corporations not only the same rights as individuals, but even greater rights. One dollar, one vote, with a greater right to privacy than you and I have.

Warren Buffett stated it well when he said:

"There's class warfare, all right,but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."

As for human nature, the inevitabilty of some people to succeed and naturally hold more power than others, etc... that's no reason to shrug it off with an inversion of Jesus' thought as if to say "The rich you will have with you always."

Jesus had a mellowness of heart that allowed him to enjoy ointments and perfumes that might have been sold to benefit the poor, but to live for the Kingdom of God does not imply having to accept an order in which we bow and cater to the human nature bequeathed to us by original sin.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

We live under a plutocracy for sure, which is why I get so frustrated when people throw the "socialism" epithet around in this country so carelessly. I'm not sure most of the people who do that could even define the term properly. Sadly, I'm nearly certain that most couldn't define "plutocracy" properly even though they are struggling with the effects of it every day.

Crys, I know that you applauded the Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision at the time as a victory for free speech, but it was an utter catastrophe, handing corporations not only the same rights as individuals, but even greater rights. One dollar, one vote, with a greater right to privacy than you and I have.

Warren Buffett stated it well when he said:

"There's class warfare, all right,but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."

As for human nature, the inevitabilty of some people to succeed and naturally hold more power than others, etc... that's no reason to shrug it off with an inversion of Jesus' thought as if to say "The rich you will have with you always."

Jesus had a mellowness of heart that allowed him to enjoy ointments and perfumes that might have been sold to benefit the poor, but to live for the Kingdom of God does not imply having to accept an order in which we bow and cater to the human nature bequeathed to us by original sin.

6:40 AM  
Blogger Deacon Denny said...

Great quote from Buffet, Jeff.

Yeah, what REALLY gets me is that our citizenry cannot see this. Of course there are segments of our public that are angry about the state of things; but this anger seems to be very easily manipulated.

Thanks for the reference, Crystal.

11:52 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Jeff,

No, I agree with you about that supreme court decision. I had a post - Medieval political theology and the corporation - that touched on that.

I agree with you too about the rich. The fact that it's human nature for some to end up more powerful than others doesn't mean we shouldn't have laws in place to restrict that power from influencing government.

And Jesus' advise to the rich man wasn't to be a king-maker but to give away all his money :)

12:45 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Denny,

I read somewhere that everyone in America has the same dream, no matter how poor they are - that they one day might be rich. Maybe that's the difference between class warfare and the warfare between rich and poor ... people don't want to level the playing field because they hope one day to be among those who have so much power.

12:51 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Oh, I see there's a post about the video at dotCommonweal - link

1:01 PM  
Anonymous David Smith said...

.

Crystal writes:

"people don't want to level the playing field because they hope one day to be among those who have so much power."

Perhaps, in a small way, but I imagine it's more that most people realize that once governments start declaring people fair game because they have X amount of money, it's not going to stop with the super-rich. They don't want them emptying the rich guy's bank account because they don't want them emptying theirs.

Also, I imagine that most people simply don't think it's fair for the government to rob citizens just because it decides it needs their money.

It's the principle of the thing. And principles *do* matter to people.

.

5:28 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

David,

most people simply don't think it's fair for the government to rob citizens just because it decides it needs their money.

This is the whole social contract and taxes for the common good thing. If the government doesn't have the right to take citizen's money, how can citizens expect the government to fund schools, military, fire departments, infrastructure, etc.?

But it's not that I don't think rich people should be able to be rich. It's that I don't want them using that richness to gain political power beyond their fair share of one person, one vote.

7:06 PM  

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