Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Moneybag logic

In case you missed it, the US is not a democracy. A Princeton University study by Gilens and Page performed a regression analysis on over a thousand public policy decisions, and determined that the effect of public opinion on public policy is nil. That's right, nil. It doesn't matter how you vote, it doesn't affect the outcome in any measurable way. By extension, that also goes for protesting, organizing, dousing yourself with gasoline and setting yourself on fire on the steps of the US Senate, or whatever else you may get up to. It won't influence those in power worth a damn.

Here's the plot that shows the relationship: public support for any given issue may vary from 0% to 100%; the probability that public policy will follow remains stuck at 30%. It doesn't matter whether or not you vote, you are throwing your vote away regardless. Or, if it makes you feel better, it is thrown away for you.

And who are those in power? They are the oligarchs, of course, the people who own just about everything, your good person included. Gilens and Page determined that the opinions of the economic elite and of business groups do have a profound effect on public policy. If this group is dead-set against a bit of policy, it will not be adopted: 0% support by this group means no chance of the policy being adopted. If, on the other hand, this group is 100% behind something, the chances of it being adopted skyrockets up to 70%. In short, while voting for or against an issue matters not a whit, throwing lots money at one or the other side of an issue does matter a great deal. The political parties, the campaigning, the electioneering and all that nonsense is just for show. The real power resides elsewhere. Here is the plot that shows the relationship:

So, what is it that you do when, on election day, you proudly march into the voting booth and pull a lever, or touch the touchscreen of a voting machine? You are certainly not making a decision; that's been proven already. But you are still doing something: you are voting in support of your owners—the ones who make public policy decisions on your behalf. If you vote, then it must be because you approve of what they are doing.

And what is it that they are doing? Well, job one for them seems to be to make sure that the rich continue to get richer while the poor get poorer and the middle class is... well... class dismissed. If this sort of public policy seems self-destructive to you, that's probably because it is. Whenever it is allowed to run its course, the results are abysmal—especially for the rich who continued to get richer, whose corpses end up festooning lampposts and whose arterial spray adds a touch of color to city squares.

Now, you'd think that at least a few rich people here and there might realize this and do something about it; after all, they can't all be completely stupid. Well, I think that it's not a question of intelligence; it's a question of sentience. These people are not people, they are moneybags. And moneybags have a logic of their own: I call it “moneybag logic.” This logic says that having more money is always good, having less money is always bad, and that therefore everyone should do everything possible to make sure that there is always more money. If that requires turning the Earth into a polluted, radioactive, lifeless desert, so be it.

As the author Victor Pelevin once observed, “Everything has deadlocked on money, and money has deadlocked on itself.” Truer words have rarely been spoken. After all, you can't get anything done without spending money. And to spend money you have to make it first. And you have to have money in order to make money. This is what we teach to our children, along with “There is no free lunch” and other such homilies. “Don't quit your day job,” we tell them if they take up music or the arts, and “How do you suppose you'll make a living with that?” It is little wonder that they then march into the voting booth and cast a vote for the moneybags.

Let's face it, the moneybags can't help acting like moneybags, in accordance with moneybag logic. But a lot of them are getting spooked, thinking that this will end badly for them. A lot of them are realizing that this money that they are made of is just so much soiled paper and numbers inside computers, and to make any of it mean anything they need to control everything. But what if that control slips through their fingers? How much will this mountain of nothing be worth then? Luckily, there are some professionals on hand to help them. I call them moneybag-whisperers. Like people who can soothe nervous horses, these professionals excel at talking down moneybags. Even financial Armageddon is survivable, you see. You just need a lot of gold, and weapons, and a few warlords on your side. Your private jet that's ready to evacuate you to your private island paradise. Little things like that. It's all under control, you see. Thanks to the efforts of the moneybag-whisperers, it may turn out that some of the shrewder moneybags won't have a problem no matter what happens.

But everyone else will have a problem, and here moneybag logic isn't going to help. Moneybag logic works for the big moneybags, but it is seductive even to the tiniest little baggie full of nickels. After all, even the tiniest baggie full of nickles could win the lottery one day... If that's how you think, then you should go and vote for some moneybags; either way, your chances of winning are exactly the same.


Nick said...

I like how right under this post is a google ad for "Duck Durbin for Senate"

forrest said...

You mean, "The real power resides _elsewhere_."

You haven't said much about this, but 35% chance of something becoming policy really isn't very good.

Maybe this study didn't finger the actual 'economic elite'? -- That is, 'business groups' aren't it.

'Financial elite' would be ranking members of what Michael Hudson calls the 'FIRE sector' -- aka people whose wealth is based on 'financial, insurance, and real estate' business. If you could pick those out of the heap, you ought to get a higher rate of political successes.

Sixbears said...

Wish you were wrong, but as they say, if wishes were horses we'd all be eating steak.

I might have taken a different route, but my thinking pretty much ended up at the same place.

Anonymous said...

Some people are respected, some are socially adept, others are feared, and you find that in any population some individuals or groups have more influence and power than the rest. To some extent that's not a bad thing, but democracy was - in my opinion - intended to keep such people from become an entrenched aristocracy. Our wealthy class considers itself a meritocracy because they've been able to fool the rest of us, but they really have no longer term plan than not being the slowest one running away from the bear.


Malagodi said...

For a humorous musical analog, see Fellini's Orchestra Rehearsal.

Unknown said...

Dimitry, It would appear that you condensed Ferdinand Lundberg's book the Rich and the Super Rich into a few paragraphs. I would assume your familiarity with this book. Lundberg's dry humour(like yours)seems never ending. The last words of his thousand page tome are "serious problems cannot be solved by a consensus of value disoriented dolts." A fair summation....in my view.

William said...


Actually, for a study like this, I believe that 35% represents a relatively strong correlation between the variables. You have to take what you can get with these kinds of statistics!

Brian Stewart said...

To Dmitry and forrest,

I think it is the left hand column that tells the likelihood of adoption. More than 0.6 or 60% for the elites. Pretty good success rate, particularly in a gridlocked legislative situation.

Brian Stewart

Unknown said...

I live in a town of 40,000 in a flyover state. Our local elections deal with real issues and the moneybags have not thoroughly corrupted the process. So I vote local and usually leave state and national candidates blank. I appreciate you pointing out a corruption of our culture that I used to live in delusion on, but there's no point in drawing fatalistic conclusions.

At the first Age of Limits conference I provided anecdotes of just how tragically bad our town's school system is. Well, later that year I dragged my (barely adult) kid and me to an election where we voted to renew the school levy. It passed by 2 votes. It's a bad school system but could be much worse. It isn't because I got off my ass that day and waited in line in a church basement. Our town's successful grass-roots effort to replace the 20+ year old party machine with fresh blood in the city council and mayor's office made a huge difference too.

Again, I don't disagree with your assessment and don't dispute that America's an Oligarchy. But if you think representitive democracy is a good idea in general, practice it where it still matters and save your despair for the 6th stage of collapse.

Unknown said...

Forrest, as I read the chart the 35% of the issues fully supported by the oligarchs have a .7 (70%) chance of going forward. This doesn't change the argument and I consider it a mere typo in the essay.

Brian Stewart said...

Dmitry and forrest,

It is the left-hand scale that should be read to determine the likelihood of adoption. Thus, a measure has a 30% chance of adoption regardless of the point of view of the "average citizen", as was pointed out in the article. The likelihood of adoption varies from 0% to more than 60% for the "elites", correlating nicely with the elites' preferences. That's a pretty strong statement, particularly given the perpetual gridlock of our legislative system.

Thank you for alerting us to this interesting (and disheartening, but not surprising) research.

Ray Jason said...

Bravo, Dmitry! Excellent article and "Moneybag Whisperer" is one of your best skewed images ever.

As badly as you depict the political milieu, I believe it is even worse. Extending your metaphor a bit, I would characterize most politicians as "Moneybags Enablers." And it seems to me that the oligarchs (although I prefer my phrase "Malignant Overlords") behind the curtain have discerned a new method of maintaining their control. Instead of just playing the Red vs. Blue game, they now have a more duplicitous angle. If one does not vote Hillary in 2016 one is sexist. Just as a vote against Obama was portrayed as racist. As Glen Greenwald notes, after Hillary the Moneybags will probably run a gay candidate and smear those voting against he or she as being homophobic. The immorality underlying this new technique is almost pathologically evil. And what makes it worse is that Hillary and Obama do not even bring a fresh "female" or "black" perspective. They are motivated only by the perks of power and privilege and thus are perfect clones for the Moneybag handlers in the shadows.

"Something is rotten in...the West!"

Sail away!

Ray Jason

Mister Roboto said...

Once cannabis legalization starting gathering steam, I realized it wasn't so much because of public support (though I suppose it helps a smidgeon that small-town America is slowly recovering from its Reefer Madness brainwashing). Rather, factions of the elite clearly now support it. You have to wonder why that is. I suspect it's because they know that things are going to start getting hairy pretty soon, and those elites who recognize that are likely thinking it would be a good idea if the commonfolk had access to a mildly euphoric sedative agent that didn't make the user belligerent the way booze does. Also, as John Michael Greer pointed out to me, they would probably also like to stem some of the hemorrhaging of cash from this country generated by our massive appetite for drugs.

Razer said...

The last paragraph echoes something I've been saying since the 'beginning of the US economic crisis' and have been reiterating quite frequently in the wake of OccupyWallStreet. Americans aren't angry at the 'banksters' (a right-wing 'cutesy' term for 'plutocrats' I despise), they're JEALOUS of them.

Their collective whine goes like this: 'They got their house in the Hamptons with the gold-plated toilet and I didn't.'

The American narcissist's programmed-to-be-dysfunctional logic continues 'If I stay in the game I MIGHT get a little sliver of what's left of that American economic pie before it's all looted.'

It's a losing gamble. In the ugliest of cases high frequency algorithmic stock trading could wipe the American treasury in a matter of seconds... OK... minutes.


Speaking of "A piece of the American Economic Pie". A short (1mn 53s) film clip from the 60s vintage black comedy Putney Swope about that pie, and how one gets it.

Glenn said...

From each according to their gullibility, to each according to their greed.

A conservative associate once said that democracies always fail because people will vote themselves rich.

Well, no democracy has ever been universal, and what appears to insiders as democracy (voting themselves rich)appears to the outsiders as an oligarchy.

This will always be seen from the perspective of the slaves of the democratic Master Class.

Kevin said...

I love this exposé of moneybag logic. I see it in my landlords, and very noticeably in the real estate racket as a whole. It's the impeccably self-consistent logic of crazy people.