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Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Purchase System

A force of immense power and remarkable quality.  Experience of victory without equal demonstrated in the world time and again.  Seasoned veterans of economic and great world conflict.  An elite group full of pride and confidence and arrogance, and it has much to be arrogant about.

As a social institution, it is a study in paradox.  Unique coats of arms honor family accolades which recall an era of bygone royalty.  A creature entirely of lawmakers, its traditions are cherished.  The common people take pride in its achievements, but at the same time its power is deeply feared and kept in check. 

More paradox.  Its individuals are highly and professionally skilled.  They go about their business as both a science and career.  But they cultivate high society with a casual air.  And in most cases they acquire their status by purchase at a high cost, the higher the title the greater the cost.

Over the generations, this “purchase system” is condemned as “organized incompetence and institutionalized corruption.”  But its purpose ensures that those of status have a “stake in their society and are not dangerous to its institutions.”  The purchase system keeps the social institution “firmly in the hands of an aristocratic governing elite, who control most of the wealth and power of the nation.”

Structurally, a final paradox lies in the fact that this social institution is “both bureaucratized and decentralized.”  For that reason, there can never be a coup in the land of America’s mother country.  The British military proves itself time and again in the twenty plus years preceding the 1776 American Revolutionary War, fighting on five continents and defeating every power that stands against it.  All in all, it’s an impressive, efficient set-up.

And as with many of its other time-tested institutions, America adopts the economic component, if not the military structure, of the British purchase system.  America’s wealthy class seems to be firmly in the hands of an aristocratic governing elite, controlling most of the nation’s wealth.  And with wealth in the purchase system comes power (see cartoon).

The good news?  Thankfully, the wealthy class has, thanks to the purchase system, a critical stake in its society and consequently is not seen to be dangerous to its other institutions.  A revolution from above seems unlikely.

But there is bad news, too.  The startling graphic is that the 400 richest Americans possess more wealth than the bottom half (150 million) combined.  At the same time, wealth disparity which is already at record historical levels continues to widen.  Equality of opportunity for the masses of the unknown upon whom the strength of the nation derives --- essential to keeping the American Dream alive --- continues its decline in lock step with the shrinking middle class.

Newcomers, especially, are perhaps hit the hardest, their opportunity to achieve a realistic level of prosperity by any reasonable measure effectively foreclosed.  The 2016 US presidential election is still more than one year away.  But the issue of wealth disparity frames the coming debate, as the third great crisis in our nation’s history comes into full view.

A campaign ad for one of the political candidates strikes a chord of provocation in direct terms:

Which side are you on?  Are you on the side of ordinary people struggling to put food on the table, send their kids to college, live with some dignity --- or are you on the side of millionaires and billionaires whose greed has no end?

Sometimes --- in real life --- we are left with little alternative but to make choices and take sides.

-Michael D’Angelo