Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 6, No. 12, December 2010
Luis T. Gutierrez, Editor
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Concentrated Wealth and the Purchase of Political Power:
Democracy's Death Spiral

Charles Hugh Smith

Originally published in the Of Two Minds Blog, 29 October 2010
Reprinted with Permission

Charles Hugh Smith is the author of
Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation,
Published by CreateSpace, 2009

"This indispensable guide to the next twenty years of global turmoil and transformation weaves the full spectrum of disciplines--history, political economy, ecology, energy, marketing, investing, health, and the psychology of happiness--into a uniquely comprehensive understanding that offers every thinking person practical principles for not just surviving but prospering in the difficult decades ahead."

Democracy's Death Spiral is a positive feedback loop between ever-greater concentrations of wealth and the ever-higher costs of retaining political power.

Positive feedback loops lead to "death spirals" in which destructive forces reinforce each other until the dynamic implodes. One example is an "arms race" in which ever more costly and complex weapons systems must be matched lest one nation in the race fall behind.

Since the number of weapons and their cost are essentially unlimited, then the race continues until one contestant is bankrupted.

Though many would claim it is a simplification, this dynamic was at the root of the Soviet Union's collapse: as the U.S. embarked on a massive expansion of its military and technological power, the Soviet Union exhausted its much smaller resources attempting to keep up.

Though statistics from the Soviet era are not entirely reliable, various scholars have estimated that fully 40% of the Soviet GDP was being expended on its military and military-industrial complex.

The U.S. was spending between 4% and 6% of its GDP on direct military expenditures, even during the height of the Reagan buildup. If you include the Security State (CIA, NSA, et al.), the Veterans Administration and other military-related programs (DARPA, etc.) then the cost was still far less than 10% of GDP.

The greater freedom to exchange information between government-funded research labs, private firms and government-funded universities enabled the U.S. to outdistance the Soviets technologically. Once again a positive feedback loop can be discerned in the way that increased spending on military-related R&D in the U.S. led to increasingly networked nodes of technological advancement which led to greater advances and more spending to develop those technologies.

The U.S. emerged victorious as the sole superpower, but a more closely matched rivalry might have ended with the collapse of both competitors: a Death Spiral of the sort Jared Diamond describes on Easter Island in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

In the U.S., the ever-greater concentrations of wealth gathered by an ascendant Financial Power Elite has entered a positive feedback loop with the costs of gaining or retaining political power. The costs of winning an election have skyrocketed to the point that fundraising is the key function of any politico who is not independently extremely wealthy.

This quantum leap up in the costs of gaining or retaining power has forced politicos to curry the favors of those few Elite groups which can give them millions of dollars.

Just as in an arms race, the amounts of money which can be spent on campaigns is essentially unlimited. The explosion of media now requires multi-million dollar campaigns on multiple fronts: broadcast TV, cable TV, mailed flyers, radio spots, promotion campaigns to influence the mainstream media coverage, adverts on the Web and social media campaigns--the list grows longer every year.

Here is the positive feedback loop. Candidate A gains the backing of a Power Elite group (a political action committee or other front) and collects $5 million. As a result of a media blitz, he/she wins.

Between elections, he/she amasses a "war chest" of $5 million from the same donors, guaranteeing that the final cost of the next election will be $10 million.

Potential rivals understand that victory against this well-funded incumbent, no matter how incompetent, will require $15 million. The only sources of that amount of cash are other Financial Power Elites and State-funded fiefdoms like teachers unions, and so each candidate sells their soul to the few "special interests" with deep enough pockets to harvest and contribute millions of dollars.

Now repeat that election cycle a few times and see how quickly the cost rises. The truly pernicious aspect of this positive feedback is this: if wealth wasn't becoming ever more concentrated in the razor-thin slice at the top of the U.S. economy, then politicos couldn't gather huge sums of money from such small groups. They would have to seek a broader base to raise money, and that would dampen the influence of the top donors.

Instead, the cycle grows stronger with each election cycle: to raise the gargantuan sums needed to keep political power, politicos become ever more reliant on a tiny pool of super-wealthy Elites and State-funded fiefdoms.

(In Survival+, I describe the desperate plowing of millions of dollars by public unions and other State-dependent fiefdoms into election campaigns as full spectrum defense of the status quo. When two such fiefdoms are competing for dwindling State resources, I term that Internecine Conflict Between Protected Fiefdoms.)

In other words, the more elections cost, the greater the dependence of politicos on a wealthy Elite. And thus the influence of those Elites over the politicos grows as well. This is how the political machinery of deomocracy gets "captured" by a tiny Financial Power Elite.

But there is another aspect to this feedback loop: the key way to gather more of the national income and restrict competitors is to get the Central State (Federal government) to lower your taxes, raise barriers to competition, award you sweetheart State contracts, and so on: in other words, partner with the politicos who now depend on you for their power to expand your cartel's reach, revenues and profits.

This is the Death Spiral of Democracy. The way to increase the concentration of wealth is to partner with the State so the Central State functionaries and agencies funnel ever-larger shares of the national income to your cartel or quasi-monopoly while the State suppresses or marginalizes potential competitors.

The more wealth you concentrate, then the more political power you can purchase. Indeed, the involvement of the super-wealthy causes the costs of campaigns to rise to levels where politicos have no choice but to become dependent on Power Elites to fund their campaigns.

You see how the feedback works: greater concentratiions of wealth creates greater concentrations of political power, and just as importantly, increases the dependence of the political class on the Financial Power Elites and fiefdoms for their very survival.

Alienating a Power Elite or State-funded fiefdom/monopoly is a death sentence, for all those millions will quickly flow to a political rival.

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the same rights as individual citizens and giving unlimited sums of money to politicos is protected as "free speech," then the Death Spiral of Democracy has no negative feedbacks to restrain its dynamic.

This is how a handful of banks and Wall Street firms over-rode the will of the citizens who expressed their desire to let the banks go bankrupt 600-to-1.

The winner and loser of this Death Spiral are clearly visible: democracy has imploded and concentrated wealth has won.

Lest you consider the bank bailout a now-stale example, consider these recent headlines:

A Paralyzed Fed Defers Decision On Monetary Policy To Primary Dealers In An Act That Can Only Be Classified As Treason

Triple Down: Fannie, Freddie, and the Triumph of the Corporate State

Want to get away with murder? Become a bank.

SIGTARP Report: Treasury Hid AIG Losses

Treasury Shields Citigroup as Deletions Undercut Disclosure

Top U.S. Incomes Grew Five-Fold in 2009, to a $519 Million Average

Apologists who claim democracy is basically unchanged abound. The entire goal of a corporate media and State propaganda machine is to obfuscate what is really going on. Apologists ignore $500 million elections, an army of 40,000 lobbyists, and all the other evidence that concentrations of wealth are concentrating political power which they then use to further concentrate and protect their growing share of the national income.

A guest on a recent "Charlie Rose" show (I believe it was the October 25th show) summed up the reality of our "democracy" with an anecdote about President Obama's visit to Wall Street while the bogus "financial reform" bill was in play. The President essentially pleaded with the Wall Street Elite to "please stop lobbying us" about the (already gutted) "reform" bill.

There you have the end-state of Democracy's Death Spiral: "the most powerful elected official in the world" begging Wall Street to stop lobbying its Central State lackeys so visibly, lest the public catch on.

Democracy is already dead in America, but the wizened death-mask offers a useful facade for propaganda purposes. As I noted in The Stealth Coup D'Etat: U.S.A. 2008-2010 , The Power Elites are apolitical. They don't care about the color of your uniform; whether you wear a blue shirt or a red shirt is inconsequential.

So please enjoy the bread and circuses of the election which the Central State is holding for your entertainment in the Coliseum. No expense has been spared.

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