William Evjue saw the same future for Wisconsin that Scott Walker sees, but for Evjue it was a nightmare rather than a dream come true.
'Dictatorship of wealth'
William T. Evjue, the founder of The Capital Times, always had a healthy suspicion of the power of excessive wealth.
For years nearly every Saturday in his daily front-page column “Hello, Wisconsin,” he’d make note of the week’s latest corporate mergers as recorded in the Wall Street Journal and then write:
“The trend toward the concentration of financial, economic, political and military power continues. Are we headed for a dictatorship of wealth?”
Like many Wisconsinites who had grown up in the early 20th century and witnessed firsthand the brashness of big money and its corrupting influence on the democratic process, Evjue didn’t want to see the state return to those days. The state’s heralded progressive movement had succeeded in the early 1900s in putting a collar on the brazen special interests which for years had essentially bought political favor. But by mid-century there were already signs that wealth was being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands that could once again have an outsized influence on the democratic process — a dictatorship of wealth, if you will.
Unfortunately, if the crusty editor asked today if we’re headed for a dictatorship of wealth, the answer would have to be “yes.”
Because that’s exactly what’s happened, and it has injected itself as never before into every piece of our political process. Thanks to endless mergers, we now have powerful mega-conglomerates that can flex their muscles to get their way. We have banks and other financial institutions that are too big to fail, and because they can’t be allowed to fail they are protected by mom and pop taxpayer, no matter how irresponsibly they act.
The power wielded by inordinate wealth has effectively shielded the rich from having to share in the burden of balancing public budgets. Instead, those in the highest of income tax brackets, often the ones responsible for reckless decisions that have decimated economies, wind up getting tax breaks while those in lower brackets, who had nothing to do with the irresponsible behavior, shoulder the pain with either pay and benefit cuts or the loss of their jobs.
By funneling a portion of their wealth to weak-kneed politicians, the privileged are able to get government favors and no-bid contracts like the one that pays an Ohio firm $17,000 for a helicopter drip pan that the Pentagon could buy elsewhere for an eighth of the cost. That’s just one example of the best corporate welfare that taxpayer money can buy.
Nowhere has that influence of big money been more apparent than right here in Wisconsin, the very state that drove the money changers out of its Capitol a hundred years ago. As Wisconsin people, along with those in most of the other 50 states, suffered the ravages of the Wall Street-produced Great Recession, big money was not called on to help out.
Instead, corporations were plied with more tax breaks while the ordinary working people were asked to pay more to “fix” the state’s fiscal problems. Reporter Mike Ivey’s excellent piece in last week’s print edition of the Cap Times explained in detail how, thanks to Governor Scott Walker and his legislative backers, many corporations will pay absolutely no income taxes in the near future. Individual taxpayers will have to pick up the difference. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign estimates those tax breaks and financial incentives annually cost the average family of four $235.
When the unions representing many of those average families tried to talk with the governor, they were turned away. He instead quickly took a phone call from a man he thought was a billionaire Koch brother who had plied him with big campaign bucks before and would surely do so in the future. It was an eye-opening example of just how easily big money opens doors and provides access to so many of our politicians.
The case of ABC Supply’s billionaire owner Diane Hendricks buttonholing Walker and urging him to make Wisconsin a “right-to-work” state is but the latest example of purchased access to political power. Hendricks wrote Walker a $500,000 check, apparently satisfied that Walker would help her pad her fortune while making it easier for her and her wealthy colleagues to pay their workers less.
What’s worse, they’re not even embarrassed by it, confident that voters will overlook this pandering to the power of money.
That’s why so many of the country’s richest people are lavishing hundreds of thousands of dollars on Walker’s expensive campaign to save his job. Next Tuesday’s recall election, after all, is a lot more than a referendum on collective bargaining or the morality of the governor’s “divide and conquer” politics.
It’s a vote on whether Wisconsin will once again take a stand to loosen the grip that big money now has on the political process, which Walker so ably represents. Nothing threatens democracy more than a dictatorship of wealth. If Walker survives, that dictatorship threatens to become even stronger.
(This column originally appeared on the opinion page of the Capital Times.)
May 31, 2012
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Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of the Capital Times and a FightingBob.com contributing editor.