Who says bipartisanship is dead? Not Charles H. Ferguson, Oscar-winning director of the documentary Inside Job and author of the recently released Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption and the Hijacking of America.
American politics may be more polarized than at any time since the advent of public opinion surveying. But on one thing our parties are united, says Ferguson: that the care and feeding of upper crust swells is their number one priority.
While Bill Clinton raised the eyebrows of some when he seemed to throw Team Obama under the bus over its attacks on Bain Capital, Ferguson wasn't the least surprised by the Big Dog's display of disloyalty. When Clinton praised Mitt Romney's "sterling business career" and then warned Democrats not to disparage the investor class by getting "into the position where we say this is bad work, this is good work" Ferguson saw this as further proof "both major political parties have become captives of the moneyed elite."
It's a state of affairs that Ferguson calls "duopoly." And over the last generation, says Ferguson, America has experienced a profound realignment of its politics as the two parties have formed a "cartel" that competes for Wall Street money while "colluding to hide this fact" through fierce partisan battles over social and "values" issues that disguise the similar positions Republicans and Democrats take on serving the interests of America's financial oligarchy.
The best proof of this, says Ferguson, is that four years after "a horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud" not a single financial executive has gone to jail. "And that's wrong," says Ferguson.
Ronald Reagan once liked to illustrate the size of the federal government by getting us to imagine a stack of dollar bills stretching from Washington D.C. to the moon or winding around the world however many times it took for the Great Communicator to make his point about our government being way too big.
The graphic was as misleading as it was effective. But it got me thinking about how high the stack of 7-Elevens knocked over by teenagers now rotting in jail would have to be to equal the trillions in world-wide wealth incinerated by the high rollers whose access to capital let them rearrange our economy in ways that benefited only them.
In his 2010 documentary, Inside Job, Ferguson (who earned a Ph. D in political science from MIT) described what he called "the systemic corruption of the United States by the financial industry and the consequences of that systemic corruption."
New York Times columnist Joe Nocera illustrates one consequence of that corruption in the story he recently told about Richard Engle, a home buyer who spent 18 months in jail after his conviction for what Nocera calls "lying on a liar loan."
Engle reported wildly inflated income in order to get a mortgage that didn't require income verification in the first place. Then he paid the price when IRS agents rummaged through his trash and found incriminating evidence of fraud.
Unless the conviction is overturned, says Nocera, Engle will spend the next five years on probation and the rest of his life with a felony on his record. Yet, not a single top executive at any of the firms that nearly brought down the financial system has spent so much as a day in jail, fumes Nocera, as the Justice Department has "taken after the smallest of small fry -- and then trumpeted those prosecutions as proof of how tough it is on mortgage fraud. It is a shameful way for the government to act."
Ferguson makes a good case that over the last 30 years the US financial sector "has become a rogue industry."
Banking used to be boring and "banking hours" were more than a cliche. But far from performing its proper role of channeling funds into productive uses," Ferguson says the financial sector "has become parasitic and dangerous, a semi-criminal industry that is a drag on the American economy."
Unregulated finance imposes huge net costs on the American and global economy, says Ferguson, since "a high fraction of financial sector revenues and profits now come from sophisticated forms of skimming, looting or corruption, unethical activities with no economic value."
As violators go unpunished, America becomes "a rigged game" that "resembles a third world dictatorship more than an advanced democracy," one in which opportunities are denied to those not born to wealth.
If allowed to continue, warns Ferguson, "this process will turn the us into a declining, unfair society with an impoverished, angry, uneducated population under the control of a small ultra-wealthy elite ripe for religious and political extremism."
The rot is already far advanced, says Ferguson: medium household income peaked in 1999 and by 2010 had declined 7 percent. Average hourly income (correcting for the growing number of hours worked) has barely changed in the last 30 years. Ranked by income equality, the United States now places 95th -- right behind Nigeria, Iran, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast -- as "economic power in US has become far more concentrated both structurally and individually."
But the greater worry is not that the financial industry has "gone rogue" but that the political power of finance has been institutionalized to the extent that the oligarchy at the core of this new financial capitalism is now America's de facto sovereign.
That was always the devil Ronald Reagan threatened to unleash when he and the Republican Party connived 30 years ago to make finance the face of American capitalism. For, what sets finance apart from other industries is the sovereign-like function it already performs: creating money. And that is what credit is - real money -- no different from the kind that would be created should Goldman Sachs somehow get its hands on the printing presses at the US mint.
Like the poor, the super-rich will always be with us, as will their super-sized influence over our politics. But in more recent years, a subtle shift has occurred in our language.
We still hear about the usual pull that individual plutocrats exert over candidates and elections, of course. But more and more we hear grave concerns expressed about the emergence of a genuine plutocracy to compete with, and perhaps supersede, democracy itself.
Garry Wills is one of the nation's most prolific Village Elders, the author of more than 40 books on such topics as Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, Madison's Federalist Papers, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the Gospels of Jesus Christ's apostles. Wills is no one's idea of an ideological or hysterical bomb thrower.
Yet, even Garry Wills thinks it's not unreasonable to start talking openly about an American Plutocracy -- with a capital "$."
The 2012 election may be the very last chance Republicans have "to put the seal on their plutocracy," said Wills, because Republicans are "in a race against time." Demographics, he says, are creating a Democratic wave that will very soon be able "to wash away the plutocracy before it sets its features in concrete."
Governor Scott in Florida is defying a Department of Justice order to stop purging Democratic-leaning voters from its rolls, and governors in other Republican-controlled states are furiously engaged in similar voter suppression efforts because, says Wills, plutocrats "are desperate to get their present gains and future goals cemented into place while they still control the necessary means for their project."
That includes getting more conservatives on the Supreme Court who "support drastic reduction of labor rights, voting rights, citizen rights," says Wills. It includes protections for corporate and lobbying power that can be fixed in ways difficult to undo or dislodge. The whole corporate superstructure of our economy can be made "too big to fail." And finally, says Wills, plutocrats can "use their great ally, war or the threat of war" to create the fear and anger that have always been the plutocratic state's best friends.
Like all political systems, plutocracy needs institutional supports to sustain it. It found one in the Supreme Court's Citizen United ruling that formalized the dominance of big money in politics. It found another in Republican abuse of archaic Senate rules like the filibuster and Senate "holds" that has allowed the GOP to institutionalize Minority Rule.
And since institutions are the handiwork of value-bearing human beings, those institutions will also embody certain explicit values and principles as well. Ferguson's predatory plutocrats quite naturally have devoted considerable time and attention toward cultivating those values which they think support those institutions which augment the plutocracy's power and influence.
Laissez faire capitalism, for instance, is an economic system that creates wealth. But even more important from the conservative's point of view, it is a repository of beliefs about human character, social justice, fairness, property ownership, community and individual rights. And finance "vulture" capitalism is parasitic in another sense as it scavenges for public support by fastening itself to the homey virtues of an American Work Ethic the public has already embraced as a mechanism for distributing wealth and rewards based on bright ideas, hard work and risk.
Like all predators in the wild, modern capitalists need tall grass to camouflage themselves from their prey. And so as today's prevailing form of finance capitalism has proven itself undependable as a source of jobs and wealth creation for average Americans, supporters of unregulated capitalism have retreated back to the protective cover of their own tall grass as they try to sell laissez faire on the basis of its abstract value system alone -- "freedom," for instance, even if it is a freedom that leaves us to the mercy of oligarchs and predatory plutocrats without the protective cover of an "intrusive government" on such important matters as workplace safety, fair wages, clean air and clean water.
As Ferguson himself powerfully points out: "A nation that allows predatory, value-destroying behavior to become systemically more profitable than honest, productive work risks a great deal. America, like all societies, depends heavily on idealism and trust, including the willingness of ordinary citizens to behave honestly and to make sacrifices. While many Americans do not yet realize how unfair their society has become, that condition will not last indefinitely."
Like most efforts whose aim is more diagnosis than prescription, Predator Nation's obligatory chapter on "what should be done" is the thinnest in the book.
To roll back some of the gains plutocrats have made in turning America into a predator nation controlled by the narrow upper class we've come to know by name, Ferguson recommends improving educational quality and access to college; bringing the financial sector under control; controlling the impact of money in politics; reforming the tax system so that corporations pay their fair share and the wealthy cannot create a hereditary financial aristocracy by bequeathing estates intact to their heirs; and strengthening antitrust and regulation corporate governance.
These are all sound and sensible suggestions. But as I suspect even Ferguson would admit, these reforms are over-matched when measured against the magnitude of the problems they are meant to surmount.
Conservatives have devoted more than three decades and billions of dollars to a well-funded, well-organized and well-thought through plan for taking over the country by changing its culture and the way Americans think and feel in order to support institutions and values which favor the New American Plutocracy to the disadvantage of We The People.
If progressives intend to retake our country from a plutocracy so close to victory it can taste it, then progressives must have a generation-long plan of their own which is adequately scaled to the arduous task at hand. And the first step to take is for the Democratic Party to figure out just whose side it is on.