As reported by Cory Schouten in the IBC, that was a quote from a potential juror in the Tim Durham case. But darned if that doesn’t seem to capture so much of what’s wrong with our economy and our culture generally.
Durham, as I understand it, was a young lawyer who married for money and power – money and power surrounding Beurt SerVaas who served as the President of the Marion County/Indianapolis City-County Council for an eyebrow raising thirty years. This is all rumor to me, I’m obviously not privy to any of these people’s personal feelings. But, I’ve heard that, while in law school, Durham was one of those douchey guys talking about how rich he was going to be. Jim Mackinnon and Cheryl Powell, writing for the Akron Beacon Journal, had a very good investigative piece about how Durham managed to acquire his money. (h/t Advance Indiana). The short version is that he got his start managing companies acquired by SerVaas. After he divorced SerVaas’ daughter, Durham started living lavishly by highly leveraging companies in which he took an interest. He acquired Fair Finance, an Ohio based company.
Fair Finance, which did business as Fair Financial, had a solid business model, Fair said. The company managed accounts receivable for other businesses and provided consumer loans. To provide the necessary capital, the company sold high-interest investment certificates to Ohio residents.
Once Durham took over, he appears to have raided the investments to paper over the losses in his other business interests. Those losses pretty much had to include supporting Durham’s big houses, fleet of fancy cars, yacht, and parties with hired, lingerie-clad models.> Eventually the bubble burst and now he’s facing a federal criminal trial. (Advance Indiana added the detail that Durham seems to have played fast and loose with the Carpenter Bus Company retirement funds while he was managing the company for SerVaas.)
It’s in the course of selecting a trial that the potential juror said, “He took money from people’s pensions and spent it on fun things.”
The Business Week article linked above describes him as “The Madoff of the Midwest.” The reference to Madoff (and the way Madoff himself was covered) strikes me as an effort to portray Durham as an outlier. While Madoff and Durham may have gone further than, say, Romney and Bain Capital; I think the problem is endemic, not isolated. The wealthy and well-connected have figured out how to appropriate for themselves and buy “fun stuff” with the value created by others.
Hedges Hayes had an interesting column in the Nation entitled “Why Elites Fail” about what he views as the inevitable decline of meritocracies. The problem is that, at some point, the meritocracy needs governance. That gives a small group of people access to disproportionate power which, sooner or later, starts to get used reflexively to preserve and promote its own. Eventually the talented children of the poor no longer ascend to positions of power and prestige while the mediocre sons of the wealthy stop falling back to the bottom of the social pyramid.
You see that a little bit of reflexive preservation of their own in Durham’s case where SerVaas stepped in to post $1 million bond.
Anyway, Hedges notes the recent stagnation and aggregation of wealth at the top:
One of the most distinctive aspects of the rise in American inequality over the past three decades is just how concentrated the gains are at the very top. The farther up the income scale you go, the better people are doing: the top 10 percent have done well, but they’ve been outpaced by the top 1 percent, who in turn have seen slower gains than the top 0.1 percent, all of whom have been beaten by the top 0.01 percent. Adjusted for inflation, the top 0.1 percent saw their average annual income rise from just over $1 million in 1974 to $7.1 million in 2007. And things were even better for the top 0.01 percent, who saw their average annual income explode from less than $4 million to $35 million, nearly a ninefold increase.
It is not simply that the rich are getting richer, though that’s certainly true. It is that a smaller and smaller group of über-rich are able to capture a larger and larger share of the fruits of the economy. America now features more inequality than any other industrialized democracy. In its peer group are countries like Argentina and other Latin American nations that once stood as iconic examples of the ways in which the absence of a large middle class presented a roadblock to development and good governance.
He also notes the decline of mobility – in the 70s, 36% of families stayed in the same income decile. By the 90s, it was more like 40%.
So, you see guys like Durham taking pensions to buy Playboy bunnies, cars, and yachts (no word on a car elevator in his garage). You see Social Security getting spent on wars and tax cuts for the wealthy. Perhaps taking their cues from their Galtian overlords, on the small end, you see people with little income and a great deal of debt spending what income they have on fancy phones and big screen TVs.
And it’s only the chumps in the ever-shrinking middle who forego a good deal of the fun stuff in order to save for retirement, maybe just to have it raided by guys like Durham or Congress. Perhaps because we weren’t smart enough to be born into a rich, influential family or marry into one.