and Settin' The Woods on Fire.*
But first, a little bit of one of the greatest science fiction epics ever.
MANAGEMENT CONSULTANT:Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt leaves as legal tender, we have, of course all become immensely rich.FORD:No really? Really?CROWD MEMBERS:Yes, very good move…MANAGEMENT CONSULTANT:But, we have also run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability. Which means that I gather the current going rate has something like three major deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut. So, um, in order to obviate this problem and effectively revalue the leaf, we are about to embark on an extensive defoliation campaign, and um, burn down all the forests. I think that’s a sensible move don’t you?
As most of your clever dogs know, "Settin' The Woods on Fire" is the title of a PBS documentary about how George Corley Wallace, Jr. came to hold and exercise political power-- Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
It is also the title of a Hank Williams Sr.** song about having one hella raucus good time
Comb your hair and paint and powder you act proud and I'll act prouderYou sing loud and I'll sing louder tonight we're settin' the woods on fireYou're my gal and I'm your feller dress up in my frock and yellerI'll look swell but you'll look sweller settin' the woods on fireWe'll take in all the honky tonks tonight we're having funWe'll show the folks a brand new dance that never has been doneI don't care who thinks we're silly you'll be daffy I'll be dillyWe'll order up two bowls of chili settin' the woods on fire...
It's a real thing, this kind of infectious charisma. I don't have it, but I recognize it when I see it. Traditionally it's what moves people out of the pews and into the aisle at church and off of the couch and out the polls in politics, but we don't see a lot of it anymore now that microphones have made everyone equally loud, teevee has made everyone the same height, and every political event is calibrated for the benefit of the cameras rather than stem-winding speeches to wow the crowds.
(and "The Hitchhiker's Guide...") -- is a different animal entirely.
It means to change the terms of an engagement by radically altering the environment of the battlespace. Think Hannibal crossing the Alps. Or the Romans building an artificial mountain to get at the rebels holed up on top of otherwise-impregnable Masada. Or Alexander's Siege of Tyre.
And this is where I think Michael Lewis' review of Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust misses the burning forest for the burning trees.
It’s an obvious point: people’s behavior can be changed. But it’s largely absent from the growing and increasingly heated discussion about the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else. The grotesque inequality between the haves and the have-nots is seldom framed as a problem that the haves might privately help to resolve. Instead, it is a problem the have-nots must persuade their elected officials to do something about, presumably against the wishes of the haves. The latest contribution to the discussion comes from Darrell West, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. “Wealth—its uses and abuses—is a subject that has intrigued me since my youth in the rural Midwest,” West writes in the introduction to his study of billionaires. From his seat in Washington, D.C., he has grown concerned about the effects on democracy of a handful of citizens controlling more and more wealth.
Drawing on the work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, West notes that the concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent of American citizens has returned to levels not seen in a century. One percent of the population controls a third of its wealth, and the problem is only getting worse: from 1979 to 2009 after-tax income for the top 1 percent rose by 155 percent while not changing all that much for everyone else. By another measure of inequality, which compares the income controlled by the top 10 percent with that of the bottom 40 percent, the United States is judged to come forty-fourth out of the eighty-six nations in the race, and last among developed nations. But the object of West’s interest is not the top 10 percent or even the top 1 percent, but the handful of the richest people on the planet—the 1,645 (according to Forbes) or 1,682 (the Knight Frank group) or 1,867 (China’s Start Property Group) or 2,170 (UBS Financial Services) people on the planet worth a billion dollars or more. (The inability to identify even the number of billionaires hints at a bigger problem: how little even those who claim an expertise about this class of people actually know about them.)
Billionaires seems to have been sparked by West’s belief that rich people, newly empowered to use their money in politics, are now more likely than usual to determine political outcomes. This may be true, but so far the evidence—and evidence here is really just a handful of anecdotes—suggests that rich people, when they seek to influence political outcomes, often are wasting their money. Michael Bloomberg was able to use his billions to make himself mayor of New York City (which seems to have worked out pretty well for New York City), but Meg Whitman piled $144 million of her own money in the streets of California and set it on fire in her failed attempt to become governor. Mitt Romney might actually have been a stronger candidate if he had less money, or at least had been less completely defined by his money. For all the angst caused by the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson and their efforts to unseat Barack Obama, they only demonstrated how much money could be spent on a political campaign while exerting no meaningful effect upon it.
Yes, billionaires have a hard time buying up politicians or running for office themselves...which is why this direct approach is often the least effective. Although the idea that lobbing giant bales of money into political races has no effect on the race just because your candidate in a given race lost is ludicrous. I mean, sure, Romney lost despite being made of money, but so what? Yes, big Republican donors spent hundreds of millions on Romney...and they lost.
But big Democratic donors spent an assload of money on Obama...and he won.
Because somebody always wins.
However the collective effect of making access to fabulous riches a barrier entry to politics is that Big Money dramatically narrows the range of issues that anyone will feel comfortable discussing. But ever more important than the effect of wealth during an election cycle is the power of great wealth to alter the course of our national conversation about everything, every day leading up to election day.
Like a great river, reshaping the topography of a continent, Rupert Murdoch doesn't win bend public policy to his will by coaching Herman Cain how to talk on camera. He does it by hammering together the fears and bigotries and grievances of tens of millions of ignorant peons -- night after night, year after year -- until they are forged into a mighty electoral sword.
The Koch Brothers don't win elections by stuffing more money into Mitt Romney's campaign coffers. They win by patiently investing decades of time and billions of dollars in an army of publications, think tanks, front organizations and fake grassroots movements...gradually altering the basic American political and economic vocabulary so that "debating" anything outside of the very slender aperture of their interests becomes nearly impossible.
*(Graphic is from my original Boehner as Trashcan Man post here)
** Thanks for the correction, Anon!