This is a follow-on to a piece I did recently about "The Lives of the Very Very Rich." Thom Hartman has a TV show, The Big Picture, which airs every weekday. Often The Big Picture includes a segment called "Conversations with Great Minds," an excellent watch if you're as much a fan of thoughtful talk as I am. Recently Hartmann interviewed Richard Eskow for his "Conversations" feature, and the result is an excellent two-part video that covers a number of topics.
I want to focus on Part 2, and in particular a section near the end. The whole of Part 2 is embedded below and worth watching all the way through. But notice especially the discussion that starts at 10:15. (If you're interested in seeing both segments, Part 1 is here.)
First the video:
And now a taste of Eskow's comments, from a rough transcript (my emphasis):
[HARTMANN] The Swiss bank UBS says that four one-thousandth of one percent, 0.004% of the world's adult population, controls $30 trillion. The GDP of the United States is $15 trillion. This is about 13% of the entire planet's total wealth. ...How do we deal with this in this age of globalization, when we have American corporations with hundreds of billions of dollars offshore, you've got American billionaires with trillions of dollars offshore? ...
[ESKOW] It's not a simple problem. But one of the things we do first of all is we recognize the scope of the problem and we don't let people scare us away from talking about it, saying "It's class warfare" or "It's demonizing the wealthy" or whatever. ...
200,000 people isn't a lot. 200,000 people is a large tribe or a small town, first of all. Secondly, if you just break out the number of those people that are in Europe or the United States, you've got ... 10,000? United States maybe 4 or 5,000? ... these are the social circles. ...
This goes back to why I think that our political and economic system is a study in anthropology and sociology, as well as economics and political science. This is a little community, Thom. These people know each other.
These people have shared values and those values are inculcated into the Tim Geithners and the Barack Obamas and the Bill Clintons — and everybody else, or most people, who move up the political ladder do so by hobnobbing with these people. And there is a very distinct tribal kind of culture that develops, with its own folkways, its own values, its own mythology. And until we understand that and then extrapolate that out to the global scene, we're not going to be able to address it.
Every word a true one. Eskow examined the tribal culture of insiders in excellent detail in a recent and excellent episode of Virtually Speaking. Earlier parts of the "Conversations" segment above cover why both Democrats and Republicans want to cut Social Security. This comment by Eskow at 3:10 is a harbinger of his comments nearer the end:
The culture of Washington, the culture of top politicians and the people they hobnob with and raise money from is a culture that wants to see Social Security cut, so the public has to constantly push back on that.
Eskow also agrees with many of us that there's a split in the Democratic party among insiders, some of whom "get it," get what we've been talking about on these pages and elsewhere; some of whom think that they need simply to "change their rhetoric" (messaging, words, empty promises); and some whom still "have no clue." As I said, a fascinating discussion. Give a listen if you can.
Now let's look further at this "tribe."
Jeffrey Sachs on the Pathological Wealthy
If the rich are a tribe, we should be able to characterize its culture. In a striking piece at Naked Capitalism, Bill Black, the UMKC economist and S&L banking regulator, quotes Jeffrey Sachs on the culture of the Wall Street wealthy.
Here is Sachs, speaking to a gathering at the Philadelphia Federal Reserve in April 2013. In answer to a question, he says this about the character of many individuals on Wall Street and in regulatory roles. Note that much of this is about individuals, humans he knows personally (my emphasis and some reparagraphing):
I believe we have a crisis of values that is extremely deep, because the regulations and the legal structures need reform. But I meet a lot of these people on Wall Street on a regular basis right now. I’m going to put it very bluntly. I regard the moral environment as pathological. And I’m talking about the human interactions that I have. I’ve not seen anything like this, not felt it so palpably.
These people are out to make billions of dollars and nothing should stop them from that. They have no responsibility to pay taxes. They have no responsibility to their clients. They have no responsibility to people, counterparties in transactions. They are tough, greedy, aggressive, and feel absolutely out of control, you know, in a quite literal sense. And they have gamed the system to a remarkable extent, and they have a docile president, a docile White House, and a docile regulatory system that absolutely can’t find its voice. It’s terrified of these companies.
If you look at the campaign contributions, which I happened to do yesterday for another purpose, the financial markets are the number one campaign contributors in the U.S. system now. We have a corrupt politics to the core, I’m afraid to say, and no party is – I mean there’s – if not both parties are up to their necks in this. This has nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans. It really doesn’t have anything to do with right wing or left wing, by the way. The corruption is, as far as I can see, everywhere. But what it’s led to is this sense of impunity that is really stunning, and you feel it on the individual level right now, and it’s very, very unhealthy.
Sachs, a "connected, respected insider" (Yves Smith, quoted in the Black article), is a "controversial figure for his neoliberal stance on macroeconomics" (Yves Smith again) and not unfriendly to the Clintons and the Rubins of the world. After all, he was invited to speak at the Philadelphia Fed. He's a former "tough love" adviser to troubled national economies, a globally recognized orthodox economist. Nevertheless, he's appalled by the immorality of people he's met personally, by the "human interactions" he's had with them. "You feel it on the individual level right now, and it’s very, very unhealthy."
A Tribe of Sociopaths — The Paramount Problem of the Age
This is what Eskow means by a "distinct tribal kind of culture that develops, with its own folkways, its own values, its own mythology." They know each other. They tell each other stories of their Randian goodness. They believe in their own "just deserts." Their shared values tell them their greed and aggression trump any need to be moral (there's a word for that). In their hunt for more billions, "nothing should stop them" (Sachs). When he calls their moral environment "pathological," he means that "in a quite literal sense."
The global rich are a tribe of sociopaths, narcissists, and megalomaniacs. Also spoiled and "absolutely out of control" children. You see the same pathology when reading about the Kochs; for example, in this excellent Rolling Stone piece. As Sachs says, this isn't about the left and the right. It's about the rich and the rest.
Their rule is near total, yet their brutal culture and ways are invisible to us. We recognize wealthy players on sports teams, for example, but couldn't name one owner, who writes their checks. I strongly suspect that's by design. The rich act like a criminal biker gang, yet dress in suits and smile at kittens and kids, just like the rest of us do. If they looked like what they were, we'd jail them immediately. Some would fry for murder, and should.
As I wrote elsewhere:
Our image of the very very rich — MacMansions, only scaled up; nice cars, only pricier; like us, but with more toys — is very very wrong. ... They never ride first class because they never fly commercial ... they own airplanes. They don't own homes, they own estates — so many of them in fact that not one is "home" in the normal sense. Now extend that — for most of these people, not one country is home either. ... Real Money lives in the world, everywhere, all of it. And most are loyal to none of it. ...
[Yet they] control most aspects of public life. Whether you live poorly or well, you work so they can be richer. You're fired when they want you fired. You're killed — in their wars; by their poisons; by their unaffordable health care system; by your poverty; by their police — when they want you to die.
Like fish in water, you live with their greed every day. You watch their propaganda (we call it "entertainment"). You vote for their candidates. Their touch and reach is everywhere, yet they're invisible to us. The key to their destruction is to expose their lives to view.
In a demonstrable way, life on this planet is under the control of fewer than 200,000 people (Eskow) — at the top, a lot fewer than that — all part of a connected self-recognizing tribe whose culture is pathological (Sachs). The truth could not be more blunt or more plain. It's why we're careening off so many cliffs.
This is the paramount problem of the age, and it must be solved — in the context of climate, for the sake of the species itself. And like Sachs, I mean that in a "quite literal sense."