Life

Will December 2017 Go Down As The Month America Became An Oligarchy?

In 2014, Princeton and Northwestern universities released a major study on the wealth gap in America, bearing the relatively boring title, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” The paper posited that the desires of the nation’s top earners drove national policy far more than the desires of the bottom 90%, prompting most outlets to run with the much less benign headline, “America is an Oligarchy; Not A Democracy.”

This was still the era of Facebook “shares” helping articles go viral and the story took a wide tour around the internet. It was every bit as splashy as the famous “Selfies Kill More People than Sharks” headline of 2015. And just like the selfies vs. sharks report, it wasn’t completely true. Over the next few months, “Testing Theories” was debunked by three different academic papers — both for the models it used and the conclusions it drew from those models. These rebuttals did agree that the ultra-rich own tremendous voting power, but nevertheless, democracy was holding on. It had lived to fight another day.

Three years later, that day has arrived. The GOP tax plan benefits the one percent as much, if not more, than the 2003 Bush tax cuts. Meanwhile, the FCC’s push to kill Net Neutrality creates an economy for a product which, until now, had been relatively egalitarian: The Internet. And to cap it off, President Trump took back 80% of Bears Ears National Monument and 45% of Grand Staircase Escalante — essentially stating: “This land is not your land, this land is our land. And by ‘our’ I mean privatized interests particularly pertinent to a billionaire; potentially mining concerns.”

So maybe it’s time to dust the old “Oligarchy” theory off and broaden it a little. Because a democracy isn’t just about how policy is shaped, it’s also about the masses enjoying some semblance of upward mobility and an equal locus of control over the land we all share. And the fact that the mega-rich will soon be able to use their tremendous sway to access information quicker and privatize BLM property for profit seems like a far cry from the nation’s “for the people, by the people” roots.

Oligarchies begin with money, but they end up being about power.

Through the extension of human capabilities via built in technology — I’m talking about stuff like a chip in the head — we could create a situation where once again, like the earliest phases of human evolution, there are, in a sense, two viable humanoids on the planet at the same time. Like when we had homosapiens and neanderthals living at the same period.

Except this time, evolution is going to be enacted through social class.

That was author M.T. Anderson, speaking with Uproxx recently about the future of our species. He was speculating about the once-novel, now-inevitable idea of humans having internet uplinks in our heads. Anderson believes that the inability of the lower class to afford such innovations would cripple their hopes of competing with the scions of society.

The end of net neutrality has a very similar set of potential consequences. We are in danger of creating a world where the information that the rich have access to is faster and more reliable than the dewey-decimal-dial-up connections that the rest of us have. In short, the internet could very soon be class stratified. Once the 1% have better internet, it will be a surefire barrier to the already-illusory American Dream. This very well may usher in Anderson’s theoretical dystopia — where the rich kids are smarter because they’re rich and then grow richer because they’re smart.

The GOP tax plan, on the other hand, is more immediately soul-crushing, though not quite in the way that people think. If you look at it simply as a set of taxes on the nation’s citizens, it has a relatively neutral dollar-per-dollar effect on the very poor and even most of the middle class. Naturally, the 1% reaps most of the benefits of the cuts — which feels deeply unfair in a nation where wealth inequality is drastic — but that’s come to be expected from GOP tax plans. The real issues are found in Social Security cuts and certain deductions that are gouged out of the code to balance the massive decrease in business taxes.

A low-hanging example: If the Senate version of the bill is signed into law, it’s likely to carry a rollback of the insurance mandate along with the cancellation of various “health catastrophe” deductions. The Congressional Budget Office claims that this repeal will lead to 14 million fewer insured Americans by 2018. Guess which sector of society looks to suffer most?

The correlation between health and wealth is firmly established. It doesn’t have a cut-off, either, as in the relationship between wealth and happiness. Instead, it’s linked across every income bracket: The more you have the healthier you are. Period. Pair these cuts with reductions in business taxes — reductions that don’t come with promises of increased employee pay or caps on stockholder dividends — and we can see that tax plan practically celebrates the old “rich get richer; poor get poorer” adage, with “poor get sicker” tacked on for good measure.

Luckily, the poor have one last refuge, one way they can get healthier for cheap: They can go outside. Outdoor activity, especially away from the trappings of a city, has been proven to benefit mental and physical health. Except that outside is rapidly shrinking thanks to an executive order. Brands like Patagonia are leading the resistance against Trump’s decision and Native owners are suing the president. (The fact that Bears Ears was originally petitioned for by a coalition of five Native American tribes — representing people whose ability to support themselves has been historically crippled by the US Government and currently sit at a 26% poverty rate — just makes the whole situation reek worse.)

This push for the few over the many is particularly maddening when you consider that, in theory, the US is anti-oligarchy. In fact, right now, the Treasury Department is compiling a list of Russian oligarchs who will be blacklisted by the US. Strange then, to note — in the chart below — that the income share of the US’s top 10% has mostly kept pace with Russia’s.

We are, it seems, rapidly becoming what we hate.

Pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, where the fuck are the boots?

— Eminem, “Untouchable”

So what will come of these three data points converging in December? What’s the endgame when the top earners take a larger and larger piece of the pie? A revolution?

Probably. On a long enough timeline, a revolution is an absolute likelihood (not necessarily a violent one, but a coup of some sort seems very plausible). Otherwise, there’s only a few proven remedies when power is consolidated in the hands of the few: Plague, world wars, and complete political collapse. In short: These are problems typically solved through mass tragedy.

Fingers crossed it won’t come to that. There are still a few minutes left to right the ship. The rebuttals of the original Princeton/ Northwestern paper noted that when the rich and the working class disagree, the working class wins 45% of the time. They also noted that with more voter engagement in the political process, we could swamp the 10%. It’ll take the mobilization of ninety-nine percenters (here’s hoping that they won’t be mocked and disregarded this time around, like Occupy Wall Street was) and demand vigilant opposition to policies that benefit the mega-rich, but a change could come.

With any luck, the events of December 2017 will be a wakeup call. Maybe by revealing how converging issues like net neutrality, taxation, and land use serve the wealthiest among us, this month will spur activism in our citizenry. If not? It just may go down as another month when the chasm between those in power and the dissatisfied masses grew; pushing us further from true equality and closer to the oligarchy our academics have long been dreading.

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