Charles W. Engelhard, Jr., was "the platinum king" of South Africa (and was evidently the model for Ian Fleming's James Bond nemesis Goldfinger). He lived mainly in a "Rhinelike castle, turrets and all," in Far Hills, New Jersey, but did shuttle via his own fleet of aircraft among four other palatial homes in Johannesburg, South Africa, Boca Grande, Florida, the Gaspe' Peninsula, Canada, and the Waldorf Towers in my hometown, New York City, and he had business dealings in 50 countries. He was not my father.
My dad, Charles L. Engelhardt, known all his life as "Len" for his middle name, "Leonard," lived in a rent-controlled apartment at 40 East 58th Street in Manhattan that he and my mother had found after he was demobilized from World War II. For part of my childhood, he shuttled between there and the gas station he ran on Governor's Island, an Army base just off the southern tip of Manhattan -- until, for a terrible period in the golden 1950s, he was largely out of work and shuttled between nowhere (except possibly bars and home).
Still, I did manage to cross paths with the other Charles, the incredibly rich one, several times in my life. There was that moment when his wife's hat bill was mistakenly delivered to our house in the worst of economic times and my dad briefly went nuts. There was the butcher in my neighborhood decades later who, if I gave him a check, always said with a little mischievous smile, "Engelhardt... I should have invested in platinum when I had the chance!" And there was, of course, Yale, my personal introduction to big-time inequality in a society that, compared to the present gilded age described so vividly by TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon today, would look like a nirvana of economic equality.
At the time, Yale was still a prime staging ground for the WASP elite. I was a Jewish kid from New York applying (under pressure from my Charles Engelhardt, who saw it as the upward-mobile route to another universe) just at the moment when that school was finally removing its quotas on Jews. That was in every way another age. With the recent set of scandals over college admissions in mind, I was certainly typical in 1961 when I simply walked into my SAT tests one day -- no preparation, no courses beforehand, no tutors, no special payments, little understanding of what they even were. Later that year, I had an interview with some Yale alum and bumped into the other Charles for the last time. I no longer remember the context, but my interviewer somehow brought up that Engelhard (no "t") and ever after I wondered whether he had confused the scions of two very unequal Engelhard(t) families. (It's unlikely, since I got into Yale off the waiting list and went there -- to my deep disappointment-- under strong pressure from my parents who could, then, ill afford it.)
And that was how my introduction to what inequality meant in this country began. Keep in mind that I attended Yale with George W. Bush and what seemed like a bevy of other George W.s, future CEOs standing around beer kegs. Despite a genuinely fine education, when I left, I felt like I had been freed from jail and yet, as Menon points out today, when it comes to gilded ages and gilded cages, those of more than half a century ago were pikers compared to the present moment. Tom
Money Talks, Big Time
1% Politics and the Scandals of A New Gilded Age
By Rajan Menon- Advertisement -
Despair about the state of our politics pervades the political spectrum, from left to right. One source of it, the narrative of fairness offered in basic civics textbooks -- we all have an equal opportunity to succeed if we work hard and play by the rules; citizens can truly shape our politics -- no longer rings true to most Americans. Recent surveys indicate that substantial numbers of them believe that the economy and political system are both rigged. They also think that money has an outsized influence on politics. Ninety percent of Democrats hold this view, but so do 80% of Republicans. And careful studies confirm what the public believes.
None of this should be surprising given the stark economic inequality that now marks our society. The richest 1% of American households currently account for 40% of the country's wealth, more than the bottom 90% of families possess. Worse yet, the top 0.1% has cornered about 20% of it, up from 7% in the mid-1970s. By contrast, the share of the bottom 90% has since then fallen from 35% to 25%. To put such figures in a personal light, in 2017, three men -- Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates -- possessed more wealth ($248.5 billion) than the bottom 50% of Americans.
Over the last four decades, economic disparities in the U.S. increased substantially and are now greater than those in other wealthy democracies. The political consequence has been that a tiny minority of extremely wealthy Americans wields disproportionate influence, leaving so many others feeling disempowered.
What Money Sounds Like
Two recent headline-producing scandals highlight money's power in society and politics.
The first involved super-affluent parents who used their wealth to get their manifestly unqualified children into highly selective colleges and universities that previously had reputations (whatever the reality) for weighing the merits of applicants above their parents' wealth or influence.- Advertisement -
The second concerned Texas Senator Ted Cruz's reported failure to reveal, as election laws require, more than $1 million in low-interest loans that he received for his 2012 Senate campaign. (For that lapse, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) fined Senator Cruz a modest $35,000.) The funds came from Citibank and Goldman Sachs, the latter his wife's longtime employer. News of those undisclosed loans, which also cast doubt on Cruz's claim that he had funded his campaign in part by liquidating the couple's assets, only added to the sense that favoritism now suffuses the politics of a country that once prided itself on being the world's model democracy. (Journalists covering the story couldn't resist pointing out that the senator had often lambasted Wall Street's "crony capitalism" and excessive political influence.)
The Cruz controversy is just one reflection of the coming of 1% politics and 1% elections to America at a moment when the first billionaire has been ensconced in the Oval Office for more than two years, posing as a populist no less.
Since the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, money has poured into politics as never before. That's because the Court ruled that no limits could be placed on corporate and union spending aimed at boosting or attacking candidates running for political office. Doing so, the justices determined in a 5-4 vote, would be tantamount to restricting individuals' right to free speech, protected by the First Amendment. Then came the Court's 2014 McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision (again 5-4), which only increased money's influence in politics by removing the aggregate limit on an individual's contribution to candidates and to national party committees.