In an age when money drives politics, even ex-presidents are cashing in. Fifteen years after Bill Clinton departed the White House, he and Hillary had amassed a net worth of $75 million -- a 6,150% increase in their wealth. Barack and Michelle Obama's similarly soared from $1.3 million in 2000 to $40 million last year -- and they're just warming up. Key sources of these staggering increases include sky-high speaking fees (often paid by large corporations), including $153 million for the Clintons between February 2001 and May 2016. George W. Bush also made tens of millions of dollars in this fashion and, in 2017, Obama received $400,000 for a single speech to a Wall Street firm.
No wonder average Americans believe that the political class is disconnected from their day-to-day lives and that ours is, in practice, a democracy of the rich in which money counts (and counts and counts).
Cash for College
Now let's turn to what those two recent scandals tell us about the nexus between wealth and power in America.
First, the school scam. Parents have long hired pricey tutors to coach their children for the college admissions tests, sometimes paying them hundreds of dollars an hour, even $1,500 for 90 minutes of high-class prep. They've also long tapped their exclusive social and political connections to gin up razzle-dazzle internships to embellish those college applications. Anyone who has spent as much time in academia as I have knows that this sort of thing has been going on for a long time. So has the practice of "legacy admissions" -- access to elite schools especially for the kids of alumni of substantial means who are, or might prove to be, donors. The same is true of privileged access to elite schools for the kids of mega-donors. Consider, for instance, that $2.5 million donation Charles Kushner made to Harvard in 1998, not long before his son Jared applied. Some of the folks who ran Jared's high school noted that he wasn't exactly a whiz-bang student or someone with sky-high SAT scores, but -- surprise! -- he was accepted anyway.
What's new about the recent revelations is that they show the extent to which today's deep-pocketed helicopter parents have gone into overdrive, using brazen schemes to corrupt the college admissions process yet more. One unnamed parent spent a cool $6.5 million to ensure the right college admitted his or her child. Others paid hefty amounts to get their kids' college admissions test scores falsified or even hired proxies to take the tests for them. Famous actors and financial titans made huge payments to university sports coaches, who then lied to admissions officers, claiming that the young applicants were champions they had recruited in sports like water polo, crew, or tennis. (The kids may have known how to swim, row, or play tennis, but star athletes they were not.)
Of course, as figures on the growing economic inequality in this country since the 1970s indicate, the overwhelming majority of Americans lack the connections or the cash to stack the deck in such ways, even assuming they would do so. Hence, the public outrage, even though parents generally understand that not every aspirant can get into a top school -- there aren't enough spots -- just as many know that their childrens' future happiness and sense of fulfillment won't depend on whether they attend a prestigious college or university.
Still, the unfairness and chicanery highlighted by the admissions scandal proved galling, the more so as the growing crew of fat cats corrupting the admissions process doubtless also preach the gospel of American meritocracy. Worse, most of their kids will undoubtedly present their fancy degrees as proof that quality wins out in our society, never mind that their starting blocks were placed so far ahead of the competition.
To add insult to injury, the same parents and children may even portray admissions policies designed to help students who lack wealth or come from underrepresented communities as violations of the principles of equal opportunity and fairness, democracy's bedrock. In reality, students from low-income families, or even those of modest means, are startlingly less likely to be admitted to top private universities than those from households in the top 10%. In fact, applicants from families in the top 1% are now 77 times more likely than in the bottom 20% to land in an elite college, and 38 of those schools admit more kids from families in that top percentage than from the bottom 60%.
Buying Politics (and Politicians), American-Style
Now, let's return to the political version of the same -- the world in which Ted Cruz swims so comfortably. There, too, money talks, which means that those wealthy enough to gain access to, and the attention of, lawmakers have huge advantages over others. If you want political influence, whether as a person or a corporation, having the wealth needed to make big campaign contributions -- to individuals or groups -- and to hire top-drawer lobbyists makes a world of difference.
Official data on the distribution of family income in the United States show that the overwhelming majority of Americans can't play that game, which remains the preserve of a tiny super-rich minority. In 2015, even with taxes and government-provided benefits included, households in the lowest 20% accounted for only about 5% of total income. Their average income -- not counting taxes and government-provided assistance -- was only $20,000. The share of the bottom 50% -- families making $61,372 or less -- dropped from 20% to 12% between 1978 and 2015. By contrast, families in the top 1% earned nearly 50% of total income, averaging $215,000 a year -- and that's only income, not wealth. The super-rich have plenty of the latter, those in the bottom 20% next to none.
Before we proceed, a couple of caveats about money and political clout. Money doesn't always prevail. Candidates with more campaign funds aren't guaranteed victory, though the time politicians spend raising cash leaves no doubt that they believe it makes a striking difference. In addition, money in politics doesn't operate the way simple bribery does. The use of it in pursuit of political influence works more subtly, and often -- in the new era opened by the Supreme Court -- without the slightest need to violate the law.
Still, in Donald Trump's America, who would claim that money doesn't talk? If nothing else, from inaugural events -- for Trump's inaugural $107 million was raised from a host of wealthy donors with no limits on individual payments, 30 of which totaled $1 million or more -- to gala fundraisers, big donors get numerous opportunities to schmooze with those whose campaigns they've helped bankroll. Yes, there's a limit -- currently $5,600 -- on how much any individual can officially give to a single election campaign, but the ultra-wealthy can simply put their money into organizations formed solely to influence elections as well as into various party committees.
Individuals, companies, and organizations can, for instance, give money to political action committees (PACs) and Super PACs. Though bound by rules, both entities still have lots of leeway. PACs face no monetary limits on their independent efforts to shape elections, though they can't accept corporate or union money or take more than $5,000 from individuals. They can provide up to $5,000 to individual election campaigns and $15,000 per party committee, but there's no limit on what they can contribute in the aggregate. Super PACs have far more running room. They can rake in unlimited amounts from a variety of sources (as long as they're not foreign) and, like PACs, can spend limitless sums to shape elections, providing they don't give money directly to candidates' campaigns.
Then there are the dark money groups, which can receive financial contributions from any source, American or foreign. Though their primary purpose is to push policies, not individual campaigns, they can engage in election-related work, provided that no more than half their funds are devoted to it. Though barred from donating to individual campaigns, they can pour unlimited money into Super PACs and, unlike PACs and Super PACs, don't have to disclose who gave them the money or how much. Between 2008 and 2018, dark money groups spent $1 billion to influence elections.