The poor get poorer and the rich get … gone

JISHOU, HUNAN — The problem we face today, says Mike Lofgren in The American Conservative, is not a widening gap between rich and poor, but that the super-wealthy choose to stand aloof from society at large.

The rich are the new secessionists, Lofgren argues. Rather than be part of society and do “good works,” as Andrew Carnegie did with his millions, today’s billionaires seek only to suck more money from the 99% who don’t really have much of it.

What I mean by secession is a withdrawal into enclaves, an internal immigration, whereby the rich disconnect themselves from the civic life of the nation and from any concern about its well being except as a place to extract loot.

Most remarkably, this thought-provoking and incisive essay is not the product of a wide-eyed progressive or a McGovernite liberal, but a conservative who served 16 years on the Republican staff of the House and Senate Budget Committees.

A conservative writer who thinks logically! Truly a dying breed.

Lofgren compares America’s ultra-rich — which he notes include Republic presidential nominee Mitt Romney — to the upper-class British living in colonial India. They lived in India, but they were not a part of India. They deliberately separated themselves from the lives of the people they ruled.

Moreover, he contends, today’s billionaires see society as a play toy. Well meaning billionaires like Bill Gates have thrown millions of dollars at schemes to improve education (while gutting public education), to little effect, while others, like the DeVos family, actively try to privatize education, so they can make more money.

To some degree the rich have always secluded themselves from the gaze of the common herd; their habit for centuries has been to send their offspring to private schools. But now this habit is exacerbated by the plutocracy’s palpable animosity towards public education and public educators, as Michael Bloomberg has demonstrated. To the extent public education “reform” is popular among billionaires and their tax-exempt foundations, one suspects it is as a lever to divert the more than $500 billion dollars in annual federal, state, and local education funding into private hands—meaning themselves and their friends. What Halliburton did for U.S. Army logistics, school privatizers will do for public education. A century ago, at least we got some attractive public libraries out of Andrew Carnegie. Noblesse oblige like Carnegie’s is presently lacking among our seceding plutocracy.

And it’s not just the schools that are seen as an income source, he argues. It’s everything else “public,” from libraries to prisons to fire protection, that today’s rich and their “small government” allies want to privatize, as if Adam Smith’s ideal laissez-faire market should apply to every service and function of government.

The objective of the predatory super-rich and their political handmaidens is to discredit and destroy the traditional nation state and auction its resources to themselves. Those super-rich, in turn, aim to create a “tollbooth” economy, whereby more and more of our highways, bridges, libraries, parks, and beaches are possessed by private oligarchs who will extract a toll from the rest of us. Was this the vision of the Founders? Was this why they believed governments were instituted among men—that the very sinews of the state should be possessed by the wealthy in the same manner that kingdoms of the Old World were the personal property of the monarch?

All this jibes very well with something else on my reading list — Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education . Ravitch, a former fellow traveler of the school-choice and school-accountability movements, has recanted her support for Bush Administration’s NCLB legislation, charter schools and voucher programs.

Rather than improve education for everyone, she notes, these efforts have improved education for only a few, while the typically under-served — non-English speakers, disabled students, the very poor — are still under-served by the nation’s public schools.

Today’s paradigm in education, Ravitch says, is that government-funded public education is passé; it’s “inefficient” and “out of touch.” A much better system, supposedly would be to make schools “competitive” in an open marketplace and “responsive” to an increasingly technological society.

Except, not. It hasn’t worked. There is no objective evidence that all this meddling with public education has really helped. But, Ravitch notes, many entrepreneurs have made money out of the chaotic reshuffling of public education, and big donors like Gates have made great press from their generosity, while being shielded from any sort of accountability to the public. Education robber barons, as it were.

Marie Antoinette is reputed to have said, “Let them eat cake,” when told the poor had no bread to eat. Whether she said it or not, the message was that the Queen was completely clueless about how the French peasantry lived, and moreover, she didn’t give a damn about being clueless, or about the poor. Lofgren argues that the attitudes of today’s rich are not that far removed from the soon-to-be-headless French queen. They haven’t a clue how the hoi polloi live, and really, they don’t fucking care.

Read Lofgren’s article. Then wonder if his observations don’t explain in part why Mitt Romney seems so awkward around “regular people.”

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