Richard Eskow says Biden laid out a blueprint for responding to American oligarchs and super-predators who dwarf their Russian counterparts in wealth and political power.
By Richard Eskow
“Tonight I say to the Russian oligarchs and corrupt leaders who have bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime: no more.
“The U.S. Department of Justice is assembling a dedicated task force to go after the crimes of Russian oligarchs.
“We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains.”
With these words in his State of the Union address last week, President Joe Biden unintentionally laid out a blueprint for responding to the American oligarchs, super-predators who dwarf their Russian counterpoints in wealth and political power.
America’s oligarchs, like their Russian counterparts, have bilked billions — no, make that trillions — from their own regime. Some of their bilking comes directly from its violence, in the form of “defense” contracts to entities like Halliburton, Lockheed Martin and the Carlyle Group.
About that “violent regime” business: It’s possible to condemn the violence perpetrated by Russia’s government while at the same time recognizing and condemning that of the U.S. The direct attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan, among other countries, have been matched by the proxy violence the U.S. has funded in nations like Palestine, Syria [ed.: and yes, Ukraine]. Our sanctions have taken countless lives around the world, a form of bloodshed we pretend isn’t warfare.
A 2014 Princeton political science study showed that government actions nearly always conform to the wishes of wealthy and powerful U.S. elites. “Our central finding was this: Economic elites and interest groups can shape U.S. government policy — but Americans who are less well off have essentially no influence over what their government does,” wrote co-authors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page.
America’s Oligarchical Influence
America’s oligarchical influence extends from healthcare and fossil fuels to the industry of war itself. American companies account for more than half of all arms sales worldwide. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that “in the past two decades, (the arms industry’s) extensive network of lobbyists and donors have directed $285 million in campaign contributions and $2.5 billion in lobbying spending to influence defense policy.”
Arms manufacturers (more commonly known by the Orwellian appellation, “defense industry”) shrewdly concentrate on hiring ex-government officials to advance their agenda and pump up their “ill-begotten gains.” This ensures that their interests are represented by people who know the officials they’re lobbying. Even more importantly, it puts those officials on notice that there is a lucrative future in store for them if they play along. Arms oligarchs have hired more than 200 lobbyists who, in the report’s words, “have worked in the same government that regulates and decides funding for the industry.”
Arms manufacturers played a dominant role under Trump, but are also well-represented in the Biden administration.
While Biden has touted strict ethics rules that attempt to thwart the influence of lobbyists on the administration, several of his earliest appointees, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken consulted for a private equity firm that emphasized its “access, network and expertise” in the defense industry. Austin also had a seat on the United Technologies and Raytheon board, earning more than $250,000 from the now merged companies.
It’s not just the arms industry, of course. Other oligarchs have bilked the people of the United States in more creative ways. Jeff Bezos built his Amazon empire off his ability to sell products online without charging sales tax. This government-granted loophole made him an oligarch, a position he has used to further cement his power and influence. He has purchased the most influential newspaper in the nation’s capital — an oligarch’s move if there ever was one — while constantly extending his monopolistic power into new markets [including building cloud computing for the C.I.A. and the Pentagon].
Despite the fact that he already possessed great wealth, Elon Musk has received billions in subsidies and contracts for his automobile and space ventures. Bill Gates parlayed a government contract and some aggressive patent strategies into his own oligarchical status. Insurance executives have bilked billions from the violence of our privatized healthcare system, which takes an estimated 45,000 lives per year.
Money, of course, is only part of an oligarch’s wealth. Biden also mentioned the property that belongs to Russian oligarchs: “your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains.” (He meant “ill-gotten,” but I suppose you could call such malapropisms part of Biden’s charm.)
If a “supertax” were levied against America’s oligarchs by the federal government, it would produce as much as $755 billion in revenue.
Russians own an estimated 7-10 percent of the world’s super-yachts, leaving plenty for their American counterparts. Luxury apartments? Check out “New York Condo Sells for Close to $190 Million; Hedge-Fund Billionaire Doubles His Money.” Private jets? Jeffrey Immelt, job outsourcer and financial predator at GE, used to take two jets when he traveled so that he’d have a spare—and charged it back to GE’s shareholders.
Little Oligarchs, Big Oligarchs
We’re told that the Russians whose yachts have been seized include Alisher Usmanov, whose net worth is $20 billion, and Alexei Mordashov, whose wealth is described as “nearly” $30 billion. Compare that with Elon Musk, who’s worth nearly $300 billion, or Jeff Bezos at $202 billion. These guys are pikers.
Globally, in the U.S.-led world financial order, billionaires have gained $5 trillion in wealth since the pandemic began. Think of our economic leadership as a “global endowment for oligarchy.” Oxfam reports that the ten richest men in the world (yes, they’re all men) own more wealth than the bottom 3.1 billion people (“six times more, in fact”). Oxfam also notes that “if the 10 richest men”—nine of whom live in the U.S.—”lost 99.999% of their combined wealth, they would still be richer than 99% of the world.”
Now that’s oligarchy.
Making a Killing
No industry has taken more advantage of government-granted patent monopolies than Big Pharma. Even when its oligarchs misled the country into an opioid epidemic — one of the largest mass-casualty events in American history — they are able to escape criminal culpability for their actions.
Then came Covid-19. As Forbes reported in January, U.S. billionaires held an estimated $3.5 trillion before the pandemic struck, a figure that reached nearly $5.3 trillion two years later. That’s $1.8 trillion in gains, divided among only twenty oligarchs. Musk led the pack, with Bezos in second place. The billionaires’ list is a cavalcade of monopolists and speculators whose wealth has been fueled by their government’s benign view of their predatory business practices.
Once the pandemic hit, Big Pharma’s oligarchs were able to parlay their political power into exclusive patent rights for Covid-19 vaccines. Moderna made $17.7 billion from its vaccine in 2021 and anticipates making $22 billion this year, from a formula developed with $2.5 billion in funding commitments from the U.S. government. The money from these government-granted profits could vaccinate the entire world, but they’ve been used to enrich shareholders instead.
Restoring the Balance
What can Americans do about their oligarchy? A Biden “dedicated task force to go after the crimes of American oligarchs” would be an excellent place to start. It could address questions such as:
- Why have nine American billionaires acquired more than $755 billion during the Covid pandemic, while so many other people struggled?
- What role did government and central bank policy play in this enrichment?
- What unethical or illegal actions, if any, were undertaken in amassing this wealth?
- What effect will these levels of economic inequality have on social justice, political power, social mobility, and the rights of consumers and workers?
- Is there any reason why this money should not be taxed at 99 or 100 percent?
The last item would not be unprecedented. It would revive a proposal from President Franklin D. Roosevelt for a “100 percent war supertax” on extremely high incomes and would echo the 94 percent top tax rate passed during World War II. (The top marginal tax rate stayed above 90 percent for the next two decades.)
We certainly face a World War-level emergency. Oxfam observes that:
“A 99% windfall tax on the COVID-19 wealth gains of the 10 richest men could pay for enough vaccines to vaccinate the entire world and fill financing gaps in climate measures, universal health and social protection, and efforts to address gender-based violence in over 80 countries, while still leaving these men $8bn better off than they were before the pandemic.”
I don’t hate these oligarchs. I see them.
If a “supertax” were levied against America’s oligarchs by the federal government, it would produce as much as $755 billion in revenue. That’s enough to pay for the original, ten-year “Build Back Better” proposal — twice.
To See & Act
It’s striking that the current debate about American democracy ignores its biggest antagonist: the oligarchs who have undermined the political process and drained the nation of its wealth. Restraining the oligarchs would help build true democracy. It would be good politics, too.
“We know from polling that (anti-oligarchical) policies and rhetoric like these are wildly popular,” writes Eleanor Eagan of the Revolving Door Project. “In our deeply divided country, anger at elite impunity and a desire to see it end are among the rare uniting forces that we have left.”
Not that we can expect an anti-oligarchical agenda from this government any time soon. Politicians know that America’s oligarchs, unlike Russia’s, have the ability to crush their careers at any time. But the rest of us are free to speak out and demand an end to oligarchical rule anywhere in the world. Our condemnation of other country’s oligarchs will ring hollow until we do.
Someone once asked me, “Why do you hate billionaires?” The answer is, I don’t. I’ve met a few, and they were always sociable enough (unless you worked for them). I don’t hate these oligarchs. I see them. As we build the anti-oligarchical movement here in the U.S., Noah Liebman’s handy browser add-on (for Firefox only) helps everyone see them. It replaces the word “billionaire” with “oligarch” on every web page, producing headlines like “Bloomberg’s Oligarch Index,” “Forbes’ Oligarchs 2021,” “Inside the Financial Holdings of Oligarch Betsy DeVos” … you get the idea.
Another headline now reads, “Oligarch investor Bill Ackman says Russia’s attack on Ukraine means World War III has ‘likely already started.'” Maybe it has, or maybe it will start soon. The best way to prevent it is by eliminating all oligarchies, foreign or domestic, and replacing them with genuine democracy.
Richard (RJ) Eskow is a freelance writer. Much of his work can be found on eskow.substack.com. His weekly program, The Zero Hour, can be found on cable television, radio, Spotify, and podcast media. He is a senior advisor with Social Security Works.
This article is from Common Dreams.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
Ah what an interesting topic. Doing away with American oligarchs.
So we will peacefully convince these sickos to change their ways, voluntarily forfeiting large portions of their wealth and the personnel (influence in government) power that wealth provides them.
I’m all eyes and ears here, ready for the plan.
Truth is if it happens it will not be neat and pretty! Not a chance! Not when so many “wanna be oligarchs” main purpose in life is to perpetuate the system that delivers political power ( i. e. money) to them.
When we talk of change this dynamic we must realize that what ever catalyst becomes the agent of change may well be painful to all.
The masses in this country are in big trouble no matter what happens currently. Just keep an eye on that Misery index”!
Were these ill-begotten gains stolen from the Russian people, and will they be returned? Ha ha.
Will they go after Ukrainian oligarchs? Ukraine scores worse than Russia on corruption indexes.
Le Nazgul sénile psychopathe et sa meute d’Uru Kaîs, d’Orques, de Trolls et de Balrogs ont été terrassés. Les affidés de LA BÊTE IMPÉRIALISTE OCCIDENTALE WASHINGTONIENNE ont prouvé et démontré leur inaptitude à assumer leur HUMANITÉ et leur incapacité à en assurer la sécurité et la survie.
La BÊTE IMPÉRIALISTE OCCIDENTALE WASHINGTONIENNE a perdu la guerre commerciale entreprise contre la Chine, et elle perd maintenant la guerre financière.
Washington est la lie de notre HUMANITÉ; que du fumier corrompu contaminé; que des barbares, des tueurs, des assassins, des meutriers À CRAVATE.
The psychopathic senile Nazgul and his pack of Uru Kais, Orcs, Trolls and Balrogs have been slain. The cronies of THE WASHINGTONIAN WESTERN IMPERIALIST BEAST have proven and demonstrated their inability to assume their HUMANITY and their inability to ensure its safety and survival.
The WASHINGTONIAN WESTERN IMPERIALIST BEAST lost the trade war against China, and it is now losing the financial war.
Washington is the dregs of our HUMANITY; than corrupt contaminated manure; Only barbarians, killers, assassins, TIE murderers.
“It’s possible to condemn the violence perpetrated by Russia’s government while at the same time recognizing and condemning that of the U.S.”
Yes, it is. But only by manipulative misleading and dishonesty coupled with pseudo moral equivocation. Was that just a “throw it out there and see if it sticks” in this already rabid and nationalistic Russophobic atmosphere for “clicks?”
While not the heart of the article, it certainly sets the stage, gets that right amount of liberal base ‘trending’ existential ire part of the audience primed for more of it. Apples and oranges? Gratuitous?
It was an obsequious pitch for acceptance by people who have been suckered and who are suckers. There is no comparability between the U.S. Government, which grabbed Ukraine in a coup such as is documented at hxxps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WV9J6sxCs5k and hxxps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWkfpGCAAuw in order ultimately to place U.S. missiles in Ukraine a 7-minute missile-flight to hit Moscow, versus Russia’s need now to undo that.
What a great article. I’m translating it in French for my facebook page
I can’t afford gas, I can’t afford a Tesla, but hey, give everything you got for the war in Ukraine! Yesterday, my car didn’t even start, heavy rain leaking into the basement, and I add that to my 99 other problems/projects/ worries on my mind. That’s the message we are getting, they even stripped the Covid relief out of the recent war spending that passed. Tulsi Gabbard had a good rant on t.v. the other day, that our leaders are basically saying “F-you” to the average person when it comes to our individual, very serious problems, like how many Americans are dying from viruses, opioids, suicide, alcohol, mass shootings, extreme weather disasters, you name it, but we are just not treated like we matter, indeed, we are told that everybody in every other country that has problems are more important than we are, as if we are doing just fine here in middle America! everything is just hunky dory! Not exactly.
Well said and I banned at CD for saying what you just wrote but not wonderful.
The US government can restrain oligarchs about as well as the chihuahua can restrain the 200-pound owner. This article brings up something even more important though. Beware of anyone who speaks of wealth confiscation. Why did our government try to pass legislation last year to make banks report what’s in your account over $600? Who cares about these tiny little pennies? Biden’s true target is you and me; ordinary millionaires and thousand-aires. The oligarchs own the politicians, the banks and the lawyers. Nothing will happen to their yachts. What the US government wants to do is take a step towards forfeiture of the people’s assets. “Own nothing and you will be happy.”
If oligarchs anywhere need to be cut down to size, let the citizenry of their own countries accomplish this job. It was never ordained to that nest of grasping hypocrites from Washington and New York to micromanage the entire world. Besides, whenever they say they’re about “fixing” some other country’s “defects,” what they really mean is they’re set on attacking, overwhelming, vivisecting and plundering one more foreign society about whom most Americans know absolutely nothing and care even less.
Let America’s duly anointed politicians settle accounts with the likes of Bezos and other US citizens, and let Putin’s government (it’s not a dictatorship in spite of the West’s wild imagination) deal with his crowd of parasites. Good luck to both as, especially in the USA, said parasites pretty much own and run the government, which the idealists expect to control them. What Lord Biden suggests doing, basically stealing from Russian oligarchs and presenting the proceeds as tribute to the American oligarchs (the primary beneficiaries of the War Sector of the US economy) is, as usual, one of his worst possible solutions to one of his totally unnecessary catastrophic policies generally based on threats and law breaking.
To be ruled by the most wealthy citizens is termed a “Plutocracy”. To be ruled by the best citizens (as measured by their intellect) is termed an “Aristocracy” A new term that would seems to define Putin’s government is “Kleptocracy”…or a mafia style of government.
The term “Oligarchy” may be used when the power of a government resides in a religious or ethnic minority. It does not simply mean wealthy citizens. In Russia, the term “the Russian Oligarchs” is being used to refer to a powerful religious and ethnic minority (other than Putin) that cannot be named because it is politically incorrect to do so. How can this conflict (and others) be understood or resolved if we are afraid to name this powerful International Oligarchy? I don’t know. I am afraid too…but that is the true state of the present world…and it’s a central issue that needs to be exposed and untangled.
Who has what and how much will always be a subject of argument. In my opinion every human needs access to the means to provide for his/her self. This cannot be achieved if population growth cannot be stopped (and probably retarded)…. and laws enforced to restrict the hoarding (and speculation) of necessary resources. Therefore I vote for a cap on material wealth, high taxation on the rich and ZPG to be taught in grammar school.
“A new term that would seems to define Putin’s government is “Kleptocracy”…or a mafia style of government.”
Not at all new, and what possible evidence have you for this definition? All the experts on “Putin the oligarch surrounded by oligarchs” are Westerners who should remember how the emerging Russia of the 1990s was ruined by the selling off of national treasure to all and sundry of the Western corporations and the fleeing to London local rich who still live in England and in luxury. VVPutin was extremely conscientious in removing the oligarchs from power.
Eric great stuff IMHO. You ask a most salient question indeed!
“How can this conflict (and others) be understood or resolved if we are afraid to name this powerful International Oligarchy?”
I posit that the names are known, but without some serious motivation don’t hold your breath.
If the ICIJ has done nothing else it has provided proof that their in investigative methods hit the deceitful super wealthy where they live. Those who make up the cream of the crop said International Oligarchy. In my opinion, many of whom run the international currency system. I’m betting they have a precise knowledge of the subject.
Banks launder money for a price. Your comment.”Who has what and how much will always be a subject of argument.” May need some adjustment., again in IMHO.
Judging from case documents I’ve seen at the ICIJ site, “who has how much and what . . .” seems to be carefully documented in efforts to conceal the truth, strange as it sounds. It’s the art of layering corporate ownership and responsibilities. “The cover up! [ I wish I had a better short description]
If only we could motivate our Federal Justice system to release what documentation they have. Refusal based on interfering with on going investigations have been one excuse, one that fits all sizes apparently. Except of course those the said system wishes to make examples of. It’s that faux “in the best interest of national security excuse again and again!”
With all due respect I don’t believe the planet or this country has the time to wait for current grammar school students to get through college let alone the navigate current corrupt system. What is needed is simply for DOJ to do it’s job!
One aside might be we could learn just how much “dark” money the CIA is responsible for.
Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and never will!
I think the only way to sort out the ‘thinking’ of these oligarchs might be to remind them of the following.
78 x 365 = 28,470
78 years being the life span of the average male multiplied by 365, days in the year, equal to 28,470 days in total. For female oligarchs, of which there are few, it’s 81 years.
I do this calculation on a regular basis and find that it helps to put things in perspective. The bottom line in that there is no way around this no matter how much cash one has or how much Government influence that cash can buy!
When we leave we may as well leave the place better for all than when we found it!
Absolutely! The only problem is that it’s not going to happen. America has been drugged down, dumbed down and powered down until it has neither the will nor the energy for a revolution against its masters. We’ll all go down with our Titanic – with the band playing.
I once got so angry lately thinking along these lines that I used Google Earth to try to count all the light posts along Pennsylvania Avenue, just to see if the supply was adequate – a la Il Duce.
Appeal to Biden? Surely you jest: the “Senator from Mastercard.”
And don’t expect the Supreme Court to restore any kind of fairness or justice – they have already keel-hauled US democracy with Citizen’s United, etc.
Sorry for the negativity; I seem to have misplaced my hope and can’t find it anywhere.
Hmmm, the laws of unintended consequences don’t always work against our interests. Wouldn’t it be something if we woke up and applied them???
An American administration to ‘do’ American oligarchs? Tis laughable. No such action would ever be undertaken. The West, and the US in particular is simply too corrupt.
While alluring, this essay is pie-in-the-sky posturing that holds no ground in reality.
How many of your Congress were millionaires *before* they became government grifters? But look at their wealth now …
The myth is that America exports and promotes democracy. The reality is that American exports and promotes neoliberal capitalism. This, not democracy, is what the US puts its efforts into promoting and for which it will fight to continue. This is also the economic & control system that has led the world to its current state of crisis on multiple fronts before the arrival of full blown climate change effects.
The neoliberal version of capitalism that the US exports and defends functions above all to concentrate wealth into fewer and fewer hands. As Mr. Eskow explains, this seems to be working very well, for a few. Meanwhile, every other existential challenge faced by the entire world is extremely and perhaps fatally exacerbated by this concentration of wealth. Should American “win” and the uni-polar status quo continue, I suggest the most likely outcome is a steady slide into a world-wide neo-feudal social order characterized by few “nobles” and many “serfs.” Perhaps facebook will become mandatory for all considering how it facilitates this. In any case, unless you are in the <1% class, you are either a serf or a court jester. Considering what is coming in the next decade or so with ever increasing climate change effects which will continue over the next several centuries, the role of court jester might just become the most important job of all.
By the way, on antiwar.com we read today that Ms. Nuland has revealed that the US has biological research facilities in Ukraine. Why am I not surprised. Hmmm, I wonder why they don't keep these at home in the US. I guess that Ukraine is useful for more than just cannon fodder. I wonder though what the Azov neo-Nazi militia might do with this if they got their hands on it. Hopefully Russia will see that they don't.
Do we have to see such clarity of reality on these pages? In UK, this currently makes me some sort of an ‘Ultra’.
To Boris Johnson and all True Blue ‘One Nation’ Tories, this is just: “The Politics of Envy”.
Excellent work! What is interesting to me is that in the bible the word ecclesia (called out assembly) which is poorly translated to church, was also used in the Greek language for the government which we call civil servants, however, just like in religion it has been perverted by those who lust after power and money. They are now oligarch servers. We are all equal and until we start to care better for those in need around the world there will be no peace!
The problem, of course, is that the ones capable of setting a supertax policy are the ones benefiting most from the status quo. Not only would they be creating laws that go against their self(fish)-interest, they would be committing career suicide.
On top of that, our media presstitutes venerate these psychopathic pigs with the implicit message that “greed is good”.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” – Upton Sinclair