THE word “plutocracy” is in the air these days. Some say the era of the de facto rule of the mighty top 10%, or top 1%, or whatever insidious sliver of the income distribution is thought to constitute the moneyed power elite, is upon us, or nearly so. I’m not so sure. I am sold on the proposition that there’s something deeply whacked about the American financial system, and that whatever that’s whacked about it is significantly responsible for the top 1% pulling so far away from the rest of the income distribution. This needs to be fixed, whatever its other consequences.
It’s not clear to me, however, what exactly is whacked. I don’t know whether to sign up for Tyler Cowen’s “going short on volatility” story, Daron Acemoglu’s “financial-sector lobbying and campaign contributions ‘bought’ an enriching (and destabilising) regulatory structure” story, or some other story. No doubt the truth is in some subtle combination of stories. In any case, accounts such as Mr Acemoglu’s, according to which big players in certain sectors over time manage to rig the regulatory climate to their advantage, are quite compelling for reasons both theoretical and empirical.
Yet I remain sceptical of the widespread progressive idée fixe that the super-duper wealthy constitute a coherent political bloc, unified by common interest and ideology, that works to rig the politico-economic system to their narrow class advantage. The evidence clearly shows that the rich have more and better access to politicians than the rest of us, and that their money gives them more influence. What is not so clear is the overall policy thrust of all this access and influence.