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Hullabaloo


Sunday, October 14, 2012

 
The Masters of the Universe threaten the whole enchilada

by digby

Over the past four years or so I've been fairly astonished as the willingness of the Masters of the Universe to kill the golden goose. I mean, you don't have to be an economic genius or a professional historian to see that it's generally been a bad idea for the wealthy to become so greedy that they create an unstable, unequal society and a stagnant economic system run by inbred bluebloods. But they seem intent upon doing just that.

Chrystia Freeland writes today about one historical parallel:

IN the early 14th century, Venice was one of the richest cities in Europe. At the heart of its economy was the colleganza, a basic form of joint-stock company created to finance a single trade expedition. The brilliance of the colleganza was that it opened the economy to new entrants, allowing risk-taking entrepreneurs to share in the financial upside with the established businessmen who financed their merchant voyages.

Venice’s elites were the chief beneficiaries. Like all open economies, theirs was turbulent. Today, we think of social mobility as a good thing. But if you are on top, mobility also means competition. In 1315, when the Venetian city-state was at the height of its economic powers, the upper class acted to lock in its privileges, putting a formal stop to social mobility with the publication of the Libro d’Oro, or Book of Gold, an official register of the nobility. If you weren’t on it, you couldn’t join the ruling oligarchy.

The political shift, which had begun nearly two decades earlier, was so striking a change that the Venetians gave it a name: La Serrata, or the closure. It wasn’t long before the political Serrata became an economic one, too. Under the control of the oligarchs, Venice gradually cut off commercial opportunities for new entrants. Eventually, the colleganza was banned. The reigning elites were acting in their immediate self-interest, but in the longer term, La Serrata was the beginning of the end for them, and for Venetian prosperity more generally. By 1500, Venice’s population was smaller than it had been in 1330. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as the rest of Europe grew, the city continued to shrink.

Freeland's whole article is worth reading. She discusses the similarities between the Venetians and the current economic elite, pointing out that the modern version is quite a bit subtler if just as effective at closing off entry to the game.And she concludes with this:

It is no accident that in America today the gap between the very rich and everyone else is wider than at any time since the Gilded Age. Now, as then, the titans are seeking an even greater political voice to match their economic power. Now, as then, the inevitable danger is that they will confuse their own self-interest with the common good. The irony of the political rise of the plutocrats is that, like Venice’s oligarchs, they threaten the system that created them.

The growing awareness that the 1% is threatening the whole system is welcome. Assuming democracy remains operative, perhaps that's the necessary first step to correcting the problem.

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