The American Oligarchy and President Obama (Strange Bedfellows)

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Thanks to their cozy relationship with the Obama administration, a new class of super-wealthy oligarchs keeps getting more powerful while the country’s middle class shrinks.

When our current President was elected, many progressives saw the dawning of a new epoch, a more egalitarian and more just Age of Obama. Instead we have witnessed the emergence of the Age of Oligarchy.

The outlines of this new epoch are clear in numerous ways. There is the diminished role for small business, greater concentration of financial assets, and a troubling decline in home ownership. On a cultural level, there is a general malaise about the prospect for upward mobility for future generations.

Not everyone is suffering in this new age. For the entitled few, these have been the best of times. With ever more concentration of key industries, ever greater advantage of capital over labor, and soaring real estate values in swanky places such as Manhattan or San Francisco which , as one journalist put it, constitute “vast gated communities where the one percent reproduces itself.” The top hundred firms on the Fortune 500 list has revenues, in adjusted dollars, eight times those during the supposed big-business heyday of the 1960s.

This shift towards oligarchy well precedes President Obama’s tenure. It was born from a confluence of forces: globalization, the financialization of the economy, and the shift towards digital technology. Obama is not entirely to blame, it is more than a bit ironic that these measurements have worsened under an Administration that has proclaimed income inequality abhorrent.

Obama’s Oligarchs

Despite this administration’s occasional rhetorical flourishes against oligarchy, we have seen a rapid concentration of wealth and depressed conditions for the middle class under Obama. The stimulus, with its emphasis on public sector jobs, did little for Main Street. And under the banner of environmentalism, green cronyism has helped fatten the bank accounts of investment bankers and tech moguls at great public expense.

Wall Street grandees, many of whom should have spent the past years studying the inside of jail cells for their misbehavior, are only bothered by how to spend their ill-gotten earnings, and how not to pay taxes on it. The Obama Administration in concert with the Congress , have consented to allow  the oligarchy to continue paying capital gains taxes well below the income tax rate paid by poor schmuck professionals, small business owners and high-skilled technical types.

In this, both political parties are to blame. Republican fealty to the interests of the investor class has been long-standing. But Obama and the Democrats are also increasingly backed in their “progressive” causes by the very people — Wall Street traders, venture capitalists and tech executives — who benefit most from the federal bailouts, cheap money, low interest rates, and low capital gains tax rates.

Large financial institutions also have benefited greatly from regulations that guaranteed their survival while allowing for increased concentration of financial assets. Indeed in the first five years of the Obama Administration the share of financial assets held by the top six “too big to fail” banks soared 37%, and now account for two-thirds of all bank assets.

“Quantitative easing,” the government’s purchase of financial assets from commercial banks, essentially constituted a “too big to fail” windfall to the largest Wall Street firms, notes one former high-level official. By 2011, pay for executives at the largest banking firms hit new records, just three years after the financial “wizards” left the world economy on the brink of economic catastrophe. Meanwhile, as “too big to fail” banks received huge bailouts, the ranks of  community banks continues dropping to the lowest number since the 1930s, hurting, in particular, small businesspeople that depend on loans from these institutions.

This tilt towards the financial elites, as Elizabeth Warren has noted, occurred during both the Bush and Obama Administrations. “The government’s most important job,” she remarks, “was to provide a soft landing for the tender fannies of the banks.”

Warren’s observation reflects the influence exercised by the oligarchs in both parties, a bipartisan alliance of the super-rich to buy government influence and protect theior wealth. A recent Mercatus Center report found that politically connected banks received larger bailouts from the Federal Reserve during the financial crisis than financial institutions that spent less or nothing on lobbying and contributions to political campaigns. Another study by two University of Michigan economists (http://www.acton.org/pub/commentary/2013/11/20/welcome-new-corporatism) found a strong correlation between receiving TARP assistance and a company’s degree of connectedness to members of congressional finance committees.

As well as they have done lately, Wall Streeters have not been the only oligarchs to thrive under Obama. The tech industry, once an exemplar of dynamic capitalism, has become increasingly dominated by a handful of firms and their venture capital backers.  These tech fortunes are greatly enhanced by monopolistic control of key markets — whether in search (Google); computer operating systems (Microsoft); internet retail sales (Amazon); or social media (Facebook). All of the tech giants are incessantly trying to extend their dominion into control of people’s lives, whether by tying them to a device, like the newAmazon phone, or by re-selling people’s data to advertising.

These tech companies, which author Rebecca MacKinnon (labels) calls “the sovereigns of cyberspace,” all enjoy strong, even intimate, ties to the Obama Administration. They have little reason to fear anti-trust crackdowns or scrutiny of their increasingly gross violations of privacy from friendly government lawyers.

Of course, if things ever soured with the Democrats, the oligarchs can always look for benefactors among Republicans legislators, as Facebook and Google are already doing. After all, most Republicans, particularly in the Senate, embraced the bailout of the large financial institutions — the very essence of the crony capitalism that favors large, well-connected institutions over smaller ones.

For the most part, the oligarchs have lined up with Obama from the start. Indeed, at his first inaugural, notes one sympathetic chronicler, the biggest problem for donors was to find sufficient parking space for their private jets. As an observer at the left-leaning Huffington Post put it, “the rising tide has lifted fewer boats during the Obama years -and the ones it’s lifted have been mostly yachts.”

The War Against Small Business

If Obama has proven a god-send for the oligarchs, he has been less solicitous of small business. Long a key source of new jobs, small business start-ups have declined as a portion of all business growth from 50 percent in the early 1980s to 35% in 2010. Indeed, a 2014 Brookings report, revealed small business “dynamism,” measured by the growth of new firms compared with the closing of older ones, has declined significantly over the past decade, with more firms closing than starting for the first time in a quarter century.

There are many explanations for this decline, including the impact of offshoring, globalization and technology. But much can be traced to the expansion of regulatory power. Small firms, according to a 2010 report by the Small Business Administration, spend one-third more per employee than larger firms on staff  who can help them meet with federal dictats. The biggest hit to small business comes from environmental regulations, which cost 364% per employee more for small firms than large ones. Small business owners and self-employed professionals have also been among those most impacted, through the cancellations of their health care policies, by the Affordable Care Act.

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SOURCE: The Daily Beast – Joel Kotkin