Protesters outside the Wells Fargo shareholders meeting on 3 May 2011 in San Francisco. Over 100 housing activists staged a demonstration. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
They were mystified by what had happened to the post-second world war notion of shared prosperity; puzzled by the ways in which ever more wealth has gone to the rich and super-rich; vexed that hedge-fund managers pull in billions of dollars, yet pay taxes at lower rates than their secretaries; curious about why politicians kept slashing taxes on the very rich and handing huge tax breaks and subsidies to corporations that are downsizing their work forces; troubled that the heart of the American dream upward mobility seemed to have stopped beating; and dumbfounded that all of this could happen in a democracy whose politicians were supposed to serve the greatest good for the greatest number. So Hacker and Pierson set out to find out how our economy stopped working to provide prosperity and security for the broad middle class.
In other words, they wanted to know: Who dunnit? They found the culprit. With convincing documentation they concluded, Step by step and debate by debate, Americas public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many.
There you have it: the winners bought off the gatekeepers, then gamed the system. And when the fix was in they turned our economy into a feast for the predators, saddling Americans with greater debt, tearing new holes in the safety net, and imposing broad financial risks on Americans as workers, investors, and taxpayers. The end result, Hacker and Pierson conclude, is that the United States is looking more and more like the capitalist oligarchies of Brazil, Mexico, and Russia, where most of the wealth is concentrated at the top while the bottom grows larger and larger, with everyone in between just barely getting by.
Bruce Springsteen sings of the country we carry in our hearts. This isnt it.
Looking back, you have to wonder how we could have ignored the warning signs.
In the 1970s, big business began to refine its ability to act as a class and gang up on Congress. Even before the supreme courts Citizens United decision, political action committees deluged politics with dollars. Foundations, corporations, and rich individuals funded think tanks that churned out study after study with results skewed to their ideology and interests. Political strategists made alliances with the religious right, with Jerry Falwells Moral Majority and Pat Robertsons Christian Coalition, to zealously wage a cultural holy war that would camouflage the economic assault on working people and the middle class.
To help cover up this heist of the economy, an appealing intellectual gloss was needed. So public intellectuals were recruited and subsidized to turn globalization, neoliberalism, and the Washington Consensus into a theological belief system. The dismal science of economics became a miracle of faith. Wall Street glistened as the new promised land, while few noticed that those angels dancing on the head of a pin were really witch-doctors with MBAs brewing voodoo magic. The greed of the Gordon Gekkos once considered a vice was transformed into a virtue. One of the high priests of this faith, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, looking in wonder on all that his company had wrought,
pronounced it Gods work.
A prominent neoconservative religious philosopher even articulated a
theology of the corporation. I kid you not. And its devotees lifted their voices in hymns of praise to wealth creation as participation in the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Self-interest became the gospel of the Gilded Age.
No one today articulates this winner-take-all philosophy more candidly than Ray Dalio. Think of him as the King Midas of hedge funds, with a personal worth
estimated at almost $16bn and a company, Bridgewater Associates, reportedly worth as much as $154bn.
Dalio fancies himself a philosopher and has written a
book of maxims explaining his philosophy. It boils down to: Be a hyena. Attack the wildebeest. (Wildebeests, antelopes native to southern Africa as I learned when we once filmed a documentary there are no match for the flesh-eating dog-like spotted hyenas that gorge on them.) Heres what Dalio wroteabout being a Wall Street hyena:
When a pack of hyenas takes down a young wildebeest, is this good or bad? At face value, this seems terrible; the poor wildebeest suffers and dies. Some people might even say that the hyenas are evil. Yet this type of apparently evil behavior exists throughout nature through all species … like death itself, this behavior is integral to the enormously complex and efficient system that has worked for as long as there has been life … [It] is good for both the hyenas, who are operating in their self-interest, and the interests of the greater system, which includes the wildebeest, because killing and eating the wildebeest fosters evolution, i.e., the natural process of improvement … Like the hyenas attacking the wildebeest, successful people might not even know if or how their pursuit of self-interest helps evolution, but it typically does.
He concludes: How much money people have earned is a rough measure of how much they gave society what it wanted.
Not this time, Ray. This time, the free market for hyenas became a slaughterhouse for the wildebeest. Collapsing shares and house prices destroyed more than a quarter of the wealth of the average household. Many people have yet to recover from the crash and recession that followed. They are still saddled with burdensome debt; their retirement accounts are still anemic. All of this was, by the hyenas accounting, a social good, an improvement in the natural process, as Dalio puts it. Nonsense. Bull. Human beings have struggled long and hard to build civilization; his doctrine of progress is taking us back to the jungle.
And by the way, theres a footnote to the Dalio story. Early this year, the founder of the worlds largest hedge fund, and by many accounts the richest man in Connecticut, where it is headquartered, threatened to take his firm elsewhere if he didnt get concessions from the state.
You might have thought that the governor, a Democrat, would have thrown him out of his office for the implicit threat involved. But no, he buckled and Dalio got the
$22m in aid a $5m grant and a $17m loan that he was demanding to expand his operations. Its a loan that may be forgiven if he keeps jobs in Connecticut and creates new ones. No doubt he left the governors office grinning like a hyena, his shoes tracking wildebeest blood across the carpet.
Our founders warned against the power of privileged factions to capture the machinery of democracies. James Madison, who studied history through a tragic lens, saw that the life cycle of previous republics had degenerated into anarchy, monarchy, or oligarchy. Like many of his colleagues, he was well aware that the republic they were creating could go the same way. Distrusting, even detesting concentrated private power, the founders attempted to erect safeguards to prevent private interests from subverting the moral and political compact that begins, We, the people. For a while, they succeeded.
When the brilliant young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the 1830s, he was excited by the democratic fervor he witnessed. Perhaps that excitement caused him to exaggerate the equality he celebrated. Close readers of de Tocqueville will notice, however, that he did warn of the staying power of the aristocracy, even in this new country. He feared what he called, in the second volume of his masterwork,
Democracy in America, an aristocracy created by business.
He described it as already among the harshest that ever existed in the world and suggested that, if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrate the world, it may be predicted that this is the gate by which they will enter.
And so it did. Half a century later, the Gilded Age arrived with a new aristocratic hierarchy of industrialists, robber barons, and Wall Street tycoons in the vanguard. They had their own apologist in the person of William Graham Sumner, an Episcopal minister turned professor of political economy at Yale University. He
famously explained that competition … is a law of nature and that nature grants her rewards to the fittest, therefore, without regard to other considerations of any kind.
From Sumners essays to the ravenous excesses of Wall Street in the 1920s to the ravings of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Fox News, to the business presss wide-eyed awe of hyena-like CEOs; from the Republican war on government to the Democratic Partys shameless obeisance to big corporations and contributors, this law of nature has served to legitimate the yawning inequality of income and wealth, even as it has protected networks of privilege and monopolies in major industries like the media, the tech sector, and the airlines.
A plethora of studies conclude that Americas political system has already been transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy (the rule of a wealthy elite). Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, for instance,
studied data from 1,800 different policy initiatives launched between 1981 and 2002. They found that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence. Whether Republican or Democratic, they concluded, the government more often follows the preferences of major lobbying or business groups than it does those of ordinary citizens.
We can only be amazed that a privileged faction in a fervent culture of politically protected greed brought us to the brink of a second Great Depression, then blamed government and a dependent 47% of the population for our problems, and ended up richer and more powerful than ever.
The truth of your life
Which brings us back to those Marshall housewives to all those who simply cant see beyond their own prerogatives and so narrowly define membership in democracy to include only people like themselves.
How would I help them recoup their sanity, come home to democracy, and help build the sort of moral compact embodied in the preamble to the Constitution, that declaration of Americas intent and identity?
First, Id do my best to remind them that societies can die of too much inequality.
Second, Id give them copies of anthropologist Jared Diamonds book
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed to remind them that we are not immune. Diamond won the Pulitzer prize for describing how the damage humans have inflicted on their environment has historically led to the decline of civilizations. In the process, he vividly depicts how elites repeatedly isolate and delude themselves until its too late. How, extracting wealth from commoners, they remain well fed while everyone else is slowly starving until, in the end, even they (or their offspring) become casualties of their own privilege. Any society, it turns out, contains a built-in blueprint for failure if elites insulate themselves endlessly from the consequences of their decisions.
Third, Id discuss the real meaning of sacrifice and bliss with them. That was the title of the fourth episode of my PBS series
Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth . In that episode, Campbell and I discussed the influence on him of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who believed that the will to live is the fundamental reality of human nature. So he puzzled about why some people override it and give up their lives for others.
Can this happen? Campbell asked. That what we normally think of as the first law of nature, namely self-preservation, is suddenly dissolved. What creates that breakthrough when we put anothers well-being ahead of our own? He then told me of an incident that took place near his home in Hawaii, up in the heights where the trade winds from the north come rushing through a great ridge of mountains. People go there to experience the force of nature, to let their hair be blown in the winds and sometimes to kill themselves.
One day, two policemen were driving up that road when, just beyond the railing, they saw a young man about to jump. One of the policemen bolted from the car and grabbed the fellow just as he was stepping off the ledge. His momentum threatened to carry both of them over the cliff, but the policeman refused to let go. Somehow he held on long enough for his partner to arrive and pull the two of them to safety. When a
newspaper reporter asked, Why didnt you let go? You would have been killed, he answered: I couldnt … I couldnt let go. If I had, I couldnt have lived another day of my life.
Campbell then added: Do you realize what had suddenly happened to that policeman? He had given himself over to death to save a stranger. Everything else in his life dropped off. His duty to his family, his duty to his job, his duty to his own career, all of his wishes and hopes for life, just disappeared. What mattered was saving that young man, even at the cost of his own life.
How can this be, Campbell asked? Schopenhauers answer, he said, was that a psychological crisis represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical reality, which is that you and the other are two aspects of one life, and your apparent separateness is but an effect of the way we experience forms under the conditions of space and time. Our true reality is our identity and unity with all life.
Sometimes, however instinctively or consciously, our actions affirm that reality through some unselfish gesture or personal sacrifice. It happens in marriage, in parenting, in our relations with the people immediately around us, and in our participation in building a society based on reciprocity.
The truth of our country isnt actually so complicated. Its in the moral compact implicit in the preamble to our Constitution: were all in this together. We are all one anothers first responders. As the writer Alberto Rios once put it, I am in your family tree and you are in mine.
I realize that the command to love our neighbor is one of the hardest of all religious concepts, but I also recognize that our connection to others goes to the core of lifes mystery and to the survival of democracy. When we claim this as the truth of our lives when we live as if its so we are threading ourselves into the long train of history and the fabric of civilization; we are becoming we, the people.
The religion of inequality of money and power has failed us; its gods are false gods. There is something more essential more profound in the American experience than the hyenas appetite. Once we recognize and nurture this, once we honor it, we can reboot democracy and get on with the work of liberating the country we carry in our hearts.
Bill Moyers has been an organizer of the Peace Corps, a top White House aide, a publisher, and a prolific broadcast journalist whose work earned 37 Emmy Awards and nine Peabody Awards. He is president of the Schumann Media Center, which supports independent journalism. He is grateful to his colleagues Karen Kimball and Gail Ablow for their research and fact-checking.
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.