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Dilemmas of the Rentier Class

The Washington Post's Pageant of Economic Folly

Washington, D.C., teems with many brands of delusion, but for true connoisseurs of the flight from consensual reality, there’s a special joy that comes with reading the Washington Post’s sober commentariat weigh in on the state of the national economy. For these wise yet pugnacious souls, the simple yawning inequalities of wealth and income that assail post-meltdown America are but the gossamer fancies spun of a discredited class of liberal social engineers. Thus at any moment, one can pick up the Post’s op-ed section, and find columnist Charles Lane inveighing against the blunt economic unfairness wrought by . . . an increase in the federal minimum wage. Sure, Lane is forced to concede that there’s no clear evidence for the hoary right-wing claim that such increases always entail decreases in jobs; one economic paper suggests that this correlation exists, while another doesn’t. But, as our armchair poverty warrior notes, the anti-increase-study—coauthored by a UC-Irvine economist named David Neumark—seems just right: “I found Neumark persuasive, but I’m no statistician,” he writes in a randomized policy judgment that at least gets some points for candor.

In reality, though, as Jared Bernstein notes, the brunt of the extensive research on increases in the minimum wage finds the overall impact on the labor market to be essentially nil. But Lane also goes on to suggest that even with job losses bracketed as a factor of the minimum wage debate, the adoption of a higher wage could “impose costs on other vulnerable members of society”—without either specifying said costs or the dimensions of their alleged impact. Instead, Lane argues, the optimal means of redistributing income to the working poor would be the Earned Income Tax Credit—even though it, like all tax credits, comes out of federal revenues that also would “impose costs” on other contributors to the national treasury.

The hidden logic in all this conspicuously fretful pecksniffery, of course, is that the government can only adopt one policy measure at a given time to aid low-wage workers: the idea that a robust, and fair, plan for a broad-based recovery might include both a boost in the minimum wage and the earned income credit is the sort of thought calculated to make your standard neoliberal pundit’s head explode. But of course at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, we have lavished all sorts of tax breaks—such as cuts in capital gains and estate taxes—on the nation’s investor-cum-political donor class, with nary a whimper from respectable opinion-makers on the measurable harm that such measures have visited on basic notions of economic equity. But just propose one marginal corrective measure in the broader labor markets—where wages have steadily lagged behind productivity gains for decades now—and the op-ed pages suddenly become awash in crocodile tears for the Americans left vaguely “vulnerable” in the tortured zero-sum calculation of the one benefit that wage workers can be vouchsafed from on high.

In the same vein, one could, in the very same week, savor the hallucinatory case that Lane’s austerity-addled colleague Robert Samuelson has bravely mounted for Standard and Poor and the other persecuted agencies that grossly inflated the value of mortgage-backed securities during the height of the real-estate bubble. S and P and the other credit raters had strong incentives to continue puffing up the bubble, since the banks generating the loans that S and P and company graded also, you know, paid the fees that keep the credit raters in business. But the news that the Justice Department was moving ahead with a prosecution of S and P—the first federal case mounted against any player in the 2008 meltdown, a mere five years after the fact—struck Samuelson’s sensitive ear as evidence of a “vendetta.” After all, he argued, S and P, just like everyone else on the lookout for investment profits during that confusing time, suffered from “wishful thinking” that sprang in turn from “extended periods of prosperity.” Worse, the federal fraud prosecution bespeaks an unsightly “conspiracy theory of the crisis: Sleazy bankers, waving distorted ratings, sold overvalued RMBS and CDOs to unsophisticated investors. It’s a seductive story contradicted by the facts.”

And what facts are those? Again, at this critical juncture, the argument goes all gauzy. In Samuelson’s telling, the near collapse of finance capitalism is just all too hard to untangle, because it involves . . . psychology and stuff: “Credit standards were eased; permissive practices — sloppy, reckless and sometimes illegal—grew. But they were more consequence than cause of the housing boom, which lay in the mass psychology of prolonged prosperity.” In other words, shit—and in this case, some really, really bad shit—just happens.

Samuelson feels so strongly about this misguided “vendetta” (which other regulatory veterans and lawmakers might prefer to characterize as “the Justice Department finally doing its job”) that he crafted a follow-up column to further lay out the case for the raters’ collateral victimhood. Yes, the credit raters operated from an objective conflict of interest, Samuelson reluctantly admitted when an ungracious reader pointed it out to him, but still—you must fathom the crippling deviltry of market psychology: “these erroneous and self-serving judgments could as easily have been influenced and rationalized by the euphoria surrounding housing in the boom years.” Of course, by this harum-scarum reasoning, any bad market actors, from flat-out Ponzi operators like Bernie Madoff and Allen Sanford to the Countrywide mortgage hustler Angelo Mozilo, could be said to be simply swept up in the same crazy bubble-mania. Who knew? Who could know? How do you, dear reader, know for certain that you aren’t actually living in the Matrix at this very moment?

All in all, this evocation of the ultimate unknowability of actions springing from a culture-wide bubble-mania is a curious tack to take if you’re out to discredit a dread “conspiracy theory of the crisis”; in Samuelson’s alternate reality, an ill-defined “euphoria” swamps the most basic apprehension of market trends among bankers and securities traders who prided themselves on closely quantifying every jot and tittle of the booming securities market.

What’s more, the prospect of a both-and accounting of market trends is just as alien to Samuelson’s binary brainpan as it is for Lane’s. It simply never occurs to sachems of market behavior such as Robert Samuelson that human psychology can be so complicated that investors take unscrupulous advantage of clients precisely because the market appears to be continually expanding. Note to Mr. Samuelson’s immediate family: Make sure that the spam filters on his AOL account are fully enabled and updated, for god’s sake; Nigeria has its own peculiar variant of bubble-mania that preys on people who share Samuelson’s exceedingly generous appraisal of the motives of market actors.

How do we get a class of economic commentators this stupendously clueless? I assayed a working, semi-unified theory of the Washington Post’s allergy to the simple facts of wealth inequality back in Baffler 20. The answer may surprise you!

Amid the run-up to the general election, one of those awkward facts that don’t have any relevance to either of the major party’s stratagems nonetheless has come to light. As President Obama has begun aggressively touting the “Buffett Rule” to introduce marginal increases in capital gains taxes, and as advisers such as economic policy czar Gene Sperling have launched yet another decorative bid to step up investment in the manufacturing economy, data from the IRS shows that the Obama years have achieved almost nothing to remedy the yawning inequalities in the economy. The top 1 percent of income earners have taken in fully 93 percent of economic gains since the Great Recession, the numbers show. That share outpaces Bush-era figures by a mile; as the economy emerged from the 2001–02 recession, the top 1 percent claimed a lousy 65 percent of the gains that followed. It’s never been a better time to be rich in America.

As the administration’s defenders will tell you, there are structural reasons that the post-2008 feints toward recovery have proven so strikingly top-heavy. In the Bush-era recession much of the damage was confined to the investor class, while in 2008 the housing economy was devastated, and along with it, a great deal of the demand that stoked growth in the labor market. A slower recovery in the real economy meant that returns were greater for the 1 percent.

Washington is the only major housing market in America to prosper in the wake of the ’08 calamity.

But such explanations are something close to question-begging. If the Obama administration had wanted to spread recovery measures broadly among the earning public, it could have crafted policies accordingly—in much the same fashion that Franklin Roosevelt responded to the last major economic meltdown by using Keynesian stimulus programs, by scrapping the gold standard, and by curbing Wall Street. The chair of Obama’s own Council of Economic Advisers through 2010, Christina Romer, repeatedly sought to place job growth at the center of the administration’s economic agenda, but Obama ensured that financial policy remained right where it’s been over the past generation or so of anemic economic gains for working Americans—in the hands of Wall Street-approved caretakers of the paper economy such as Timothy Geithner, Ben Bernanke, and Lawrence Summers. In an already upward-skewing pattern of income distribution, in a heavily worker-averse economy, this administration is reaping what it has sown.

Except, you know, for the reaping part. This dry and dismal litany of economic fact has come nowhere close to dislodging the rote messaging of the campaign season, whereby the market-appeasing incumbent is feverishly ginning up the impression that he’s a populist, deep down, since he has had the good political fortune to draw from the GOP deck a complacent former private equity kingpin as his major-party opponent. Hence his cost-free embrace of the Buffett Rule—a cosmetic simulacrum of serious tax reform (tellingly named for a billionaire) with zero chance of passing Congress.

Amid the campaign-friendly, ritual invocation of the Buffett Rule, scarcely anyone noted the president’s craven, and far more consequential, signing of the House Republicans’ JOBS Act. Since so few GOP lawmakers have firsthand acquaintance with actual jobs, they have mistaken the word for an acronym, as in “Jumpstart Our Business Startups.” The JOBS Act suspends independent accounting requirements and due-diligence reporting protocols for businesses floating new stock offerings—which means, in the mobbed-up climate of today’s Wall Street, that it’s essentially a license to commit fraud. And like the Clinton administration’s spectacularly dumb endorsement of the GOP Congress’s repeal of New Deal regulations enacted in the 1933 Glass-Steagall law, the JOBS Act effectively wipes out the recent lessons of financial history, rolling back the enhanced accounting standards signed into law after the catastrophic market failures known as Enron and WorldCom.

Such staggeringly cynical displays are the sort of campaign messaging that matters in the orderly conduct of elections under a plutocracy. The JOBS Act serves as an unmistakable reminder to skittish Wall Street donors that all the loose populist talk is just so much telegenic blather for the impressionable 99 percenters, just as the donor class suspected. When it comes to policy, indeed, Obama’s message is: don’t pay any attention to Warren Buffett’s public shows of tax contrition; rather, heed the way that the Berkshire Hathaway baron amassed his fortune—and go and do likewise.

Don’t doubt, either, that there’s a deeper distemper lurking behind the White House’s content-challenged posturing on national economic policy. The steadfast refusal of the administration to advance anything like a serious industrial policy or an agenda to spur (small-j) jobs growth reflects the same rear-window outlook that has thwarted administrations back to the Carter years. It reflects, in other words, the backwards vision of American business enterprise that prevails in Washington, a city that has no industrial base to speak of but that collects rentier-style wealth under the rule of a permanent lobbying class. Washington is the only major housing market in America to prosper in the wake of the ’08 calamity. This was supposedly so because the center of our national government is “recession proof”; the thinking goes that economic crises spark increased growth in the federal bureaucracy. But the real dosh has been flowing to the exurbs of Metro D.C., where the lords of high-end contract commerce reign, and where your standard GS-4 analyst can’t swing a mortgage loan. Loudon County, the horsey Virginia suburban demesne that’s home to many a power lobbyist, corporate-cum-political consultant, and defense contractor, is the nation’s richest county; nearby Fairfax County is the second richest; and Howard County, Maryland, just across the Potomac, is third.

The chronic distortion of actual productive activity on display in the exurbs has bred an official D.C. discourse almost completely at odds with economic reality. This isn’t the case only among the lobbyist-led chorus of lawmakers on Capitol Hill; a singularly surreal vision of economic relations is also, tellingly, the patois of the D.C. media—the reporters, editors, and all-around wise men who are wont to gaze longingly at the real estate listings in Loudon as they lay out in brave, self-regardingly pragmatic detail just what’s best for the long-suffering American worker or the out-of-luck single mother.

Consider a remarkable run of coverage assembled this past winter by the Washington Post—the leading organ of meritocratic self-congratulation in a city filled with smug overachievers. As last year’s Occupy protests against economic privilege abated with the onset of colder weather, the Post’s arbiters of content programmed a series of essays to get to the bottom of the suddenly hot topics of inequality and public perceptions of the social value of wealth.

The results were textbook studies in near-hysterical journalistic repression. Over at the reliably right-wing Sunday Outlook section, the late social scientist James Q. Wilson—who had been tirelessly denying the larger impact of class inequality in tracts such as The Marriage Problem and The Moral Sense, together with his now-legendary airing of the since-discredited “broken windows” theory of community policing in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly—took a look at the uproar over inequality in these United States and serenely pronounced it a non-problem.

Wilson’s waspish dispatch—titled, of course, “Angry About Inequality? Don’t Blame the Rich”—argued that it is a grave and reckless category error to assume rich Americans represent “a monolithic, unchanging class.” No, sir! Why, just factor in social mobility, for starters! A Federal Reserve study found that “less than half of people in the top 1 percent in 1996 were still there in 2005.” Never mind that the individual composition of a plutocratic class has never been the point of the agitation against it; rather, what’s at issue is the scope of its influence. Never mind, as well, that there’s a great deal of difference between a 1 percenter sliding down to the 1.5 percent cohort and heading all the way down to the bottom quintile. For Wilson, it’s enough to adduce the idea of mobility at the top, and presto: Algerism! “A business school student,” according to Wilson, “may have little money and high debts, but nine years later he or she could be earning a big Wall Street salary and bonus.” Admittedly, “there are people such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates who are ensconced in the top tier, but far more common”—more common than two deliberately isolated examples, that is—“are people who are rich for short periods.”

Phew! This is a surefire argument stopper—so long as you ignore the voluminous evidence showing that upward mobility in these United States lags behind the rates logged in such high-tax welfare states as Canada, Britain, and (shudder) Denmark.

Professor Wilson delivered some admiring asides on the sturdy meritocratic connection between higher learning and the spread of big-money jobs, and argued, nonsensically, that leveling inequality could well entail banishing women from the workforce. But soon enough, he zeroed in on his real quarry: the shiftless poor. You see, the less fortunate among us have little to complain of, since they’re afforded all manner of cheap consumer goods. “The country has become more prosperous, as measured not by income but by consumption,” Wilson reasoned. “Income as measured by the federal government is not a reliable indicator of well-being, but consumption is”—and consumption is ever on the rise. “Though poverty is a problem,” Wilson allowed in one of his more unguarded moments, “it has become less of one.” (This, by the way, was an affront: the poverty rate had increased from 14.3 to 15.1 percent between 2009 and 2010, while the median U.S. income had dropped 2.3 percent over the same period.)

But that is no reason not to target the behavior of the poor as the real culprit behind America’s economic woes. To redress the social ills besetting the poor, Wilson wrote, was a simple matter of “finding and implementing ways to encourage parental marriage, teach the poor marketable skills and induce them to join the legitimate workforce.” This last missionary plea is especially ripe, as though Americans enduring the worst recession and contraction of the labor market in living memory were but perversely playing hard to get with a corps of would-be employers, and would be fully disciplined productive members of society if only there were some—any—way to “induce” them to do so.

Of course, in the stunted moral universe of Wilson and his cohort of policy intellectuals, the chief project is never anything so unwieldy and fraught as the achievement of economic equity; rather, the only surefire remedy for poverty—and the only path forward that doesn’t involve the wholesale decimation of public resources and the certain demoralization of liberal social engineering—is the moral rehabilitation of the poor, even though no amount of moral improvement will ever revive the perverse natures of the “underclass” to the satisfaction of their scolding social betters in the right-wing policy world.

What’s striking about these class-baiting excurses in culture-preaching is that they are now the lingua franca of Washington’s own hothouse class of political achievers.

What’s remarkable about Wilson’s non-explanation of why wealth inequality is a virtue isn’t so much its raw ideological self-delusion—that’s the stock in trade of the conservative policy world. No, what’s striking about these class-baiting excurses in culture-preaching is that they are now the lingua franca of Washington’s own hothouse class of political achievers, regardless of their notional party affiliations or ideological leanings. That’s why, a week or so prior to the Wilson manifesto urging readers to focus their anxieties about wealth inequality on the misbehaving poor, the editors of the paper’s daily op-ed section ran a piece by Democratic political consultant Bill Knapp advancing the identical argument. The Knapp outing bore the chipper sobriquet, “Middle Class Is Moving Forward, Not Backward”—and sure enough, Knapp, like Wilson, marveled at the income gains kicked up by the new knowledge economy and the explosion of the female workforce. Women have migrated into the labor economy at a 350 percent spike since 1960—evidence, in Knapp’s curious formulation, that the United States is “creating more jobs than people.”

Yes, there’s poverty, Knapp concedes. But like Wilson, he takes brave contrarian aim at the social mores of the poor over and against any assessment of life chances parceled out by the labor or investment markets. “Politically incorrect as it sounds,” Knapp insists, “poverty is driven by a lack of education and by single-parent households.”

As for all the voguish talk of the 1 percent and the 99 percent also-rans, Knapp darkly warns that “an entire intellectual and political infrastructure is used to exaggerate and distort income disparity”—a flatly absurd and undocumented claim, but enough to reinforce the impression that this hack campaign consultant is the heroic Randian victim of a massive culture conspiracy, another decadent rhetorical tic of the policy right that has made its way across the partisan aisle. (Then again, one of Knapp’s signature campaign clients is New York’s billionaire GOP mogul-cum-mayor Michael Bloomberg, so, like all dispassionate apparatchiks in the D.C. orbit, he can lay claim to the precious credential of Third-Way bipartisanship.)

And like comrade Wilson, who argued that cheap consumer durables take the real sting out of poverty, Knapp seeks to seal the case for the eternally upward-tending U.S. middle class by taking sober inventory of all the cool stuff its members can now buy. After all, “83 percent of American adults owned a cellphone last May, up from 66 percent in January 2005.” An allied spike in teen cell ownership over the same period augured especially well, our social prophet reports: “When more teenagers own luxury electronics, it means there are more families with disposable income. . . . The struggling middle class is getting their teenager cellphones, video-game systems and computers.” Let them eat Nokia!

The structural identity of the Knapp and Wilson dispatches is striking, but the real payoff for D.C. policy thinkers here is the air of glib fatalism both writers share. You could, I suppose, try to do something about inequality, but such gruesome state interventions are bound to backfire, as the chaos in Greece now makes clear; Wilson fatuously noted that, yes, “Greece seems to be reducing income inequality—but with little to buy, riots in the streets, and economic opportunity largely limited to those partaking in corruption, the nation is hardly a model for anyone’s economy.” (Fatalists of the Wilson stripe of course can’t be expected to note that however corrupt Greek officialdom may be, the policies of the neoliberal eurozone economy escalated the country’s economic plight to crisis proportions: when market failures happen, state intervention has to be the cause.) Or you could, in theory, redistribute income to shift jobs and material benefits to the 12.7 million and counting Americans who are out of work, and the millions of homeowners facing foreclosure. But such measures might well upset the smoothest system of mass cellphone delivery in the history of human civilization—and besides, until less privileged Americans learn to breed and educate themselves properly, there’s just no point.

Meanwhile, over at the other end of the economic spectrum, the Post’s editors sensed a different sort of political crisis brewing. The GOP primaries had drawn attention to Mitt Romney’s fortune—the accrual of which stood pretty much as the former Massachusetts governor’s sole remaining calling card for Republican voters. But Newt Gingrich derided the former Bain Capital pasha as an idle luftmensch, thriving on “Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic $20 million a year income with no work.” So the Post dispatched political writer Marc Fisher to sort out the troubling finding that “Wealth Can Be a Political Burden” for rich candidates seeking to take their ordained place in the Oval Office.

Fisher offered a catalog of other candidates who’d been ensnared of late by the perception that economic privilege had left them out of touch with the sensibilities of the striving middle class—such as the 2004 Bush-Cheney ad showing John Kerry in full windsurfing regalia, and the televised image of Bush père’s moment of awed befuddlement before a high-tech supermarket price scanner. And after revisiting the ample store of similar moments from Romney’s primary campaign—from the $10,000 debate-stage wager with Rick Perry to the candidate’s casual characterization of $370,000 in income from speaking fees as “not very much”—Fisher heroically unearthed a detail from Romney confreres and campaign hands to demonstrate that the candidate’s nine-figure fortune had not insulated him from the struggles of real Americans after all. “Just last week,” Fisher noted, “Romney and his wife, Ann, sent an aide to pick up their breakfast at McDonald’s rather than shell out for an expensive hotel meal”—a flourish showing that the big-money candidate retains “a keen sense of the value of a dollar.” It seemed not to occur to Fisher that most McDonald’s patrons are unable to dispatch an aide to fetch their Happy Meals; but who knows, perhaps that’s the next iteration of luxe entitlement awaiting the middle class once the novelty of the cellphone wears off.

Moving beyond these recondite readings from the Romney common-touch barometer, Fisher supplied a studiously noncommittal account of the careers of America’s moneyed political leaders, with one academic source noting wanly that Romney’s wealth is an “ambiguous” moral quantity in our public life, and another announcing blandly that “what matters most is the context of wealth.” But Fisher gave the last word to the overleveraged billionaire and preposterous person Donald Trump, who reassured a FOX News interviewer who seemed skittish about this new populist clamoring against the natural political order that “ultimately, people want to be rich. And that’s part of the American way.”

Still, the Post’s excursions into the ambiguities of wealth had not yet exhausted the fatuousness of its position. What if some alert reader, not totally convinced by Fisher’s Trump-style ventriloquism, still thought there might be something revolting about the methods of capital accumulation that our model citizens employ on the way to getting rich? And so editorial writer Charles Lane scurried to examine the forensics of wealth acquisition and determined, improbably, that the underlying issue is rentiership. As Lane laid out the question, questionable gains are those that come from rent—i.e., “any kind of income that people get by controlling existing resources—or exercising officially conferred privileges—as opposed to creating new wealth through labor or investment.” See, any such rentier class would be out of step with the officially approved method of accumulation via innovation. The passive enterprise of rent-seeking rubs Americans the wrong way. Many of the 1 percent are indeed members of the privileged rentier class, Lane went on—lavishly credentialed high earners such as lawyers and (at the more productive end of the scale) doctors. Naturally, the beneficiaries of rent-seeking collectively implore the machinery of government to preserve their privilege: “Much political activity consists of trying to create, or keep, opportunities to collect economic rent. That’s what lobbyists for various licenses, tariffs, tax breaks and subsidies—from the sugar industry to Solyndra—have in common.”

In advancing these observations, Lane backed himself into something close to a heresy, certainly in the American sphere of respectable opinion, and definitely within the polite consensus governing economic coverage at the Washington Post. There are, in fact, some sorts of wealth that are unearned, and the arrangements netting them are inherently unfair. This simple insight, available to any ordinary person, shatters the simple equation of wealth and virtue that ensures the privilege of the 1 percent. So just imagine the furor if Lane had gone on to mention that the model of rentiership applies to people just like him, to the other wise men massaging copy into acceptable channels at the Post, and, indeed, to the rest of the name-brand Washington journalists who enjoy lucrative pay-to-play arrangements with the private sector, who collect five-figure speaking fees from trade groups, investment houses, and issue-advocacy shops, “controlling existing resources” and “exercising officially conferred privileges” while they manufacture and disseminate what passes for legitimate economic opinion in this time of national calamity.

Like most major newspapers, the Washington Post has spent the past decade saddled with a punishingly obsolete business model—in the first quarter of this year, profits at the Washington Post Company fell by 7 percent from the first quarter of 2011, thanks in part to a buyback stock campaign. (Anemic as this showing was, it was an improvement over the previous quarter’s losses of 22 percent.) The Kaplan network of educational testing now accounts for 60 percent of revenues for the Washington Post Company. And as Bloomberg News notes, Kaplan “has come under government scrutiny along with the rest of the for-profit education industry.” It seems that managers at the Post depend on a gruesome and extortionate form of rent-seeking activity for their livelihoods.

Nor is this awkward state of affairs without consequence for the newspaper’s reputation. For-profit education institutions spent $11.9 million on lobbying in 2011, and for their money won the rollback of a proposed rule change at the Department of Education that would have greatly diminished the industry’s $30 billion profit model.

Post Company CEO Donald Graham personally intervened with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; the Kaplan group’s own lobbying assault was captained by former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn. And to ensure maximum legislative compliance, a lead investor at the for-profit network collared Iowa senator Tom Harkin in a Capitol corridor during the height of the industry’s blitz and told the lawmaker—who’d chaired several key congressional investigations into the industry—that he was determined to “make life rough” for him if the senator didn’t dial down his attacks on the industry. “I took it as a threat,” Harkin told the New York Times. “It was one of the most blatant comments ever made to me in my years in the Senate.”

If these tactics sound, well, Nixonian, then you haven’t heard the least of it. The Post-Kaplan connection is just one among countless symptoms of institutional corruption in the power centers of D.C. media companies, which routinely sponsor forums and other private get-togethers granting lobbyists and industry advocates access to reporters. Post publisher Katharine Weymouth notoriously was forced to cancel one pay-to-play venture, hosted salon-style at her own home at the height of the 2009 health care debate. Promotional come-ons for the gathering promised cozy confabs matching up the Post’s “health-care reporting and editorial staff members” with “your organization’s CEO.” The event was billed as nothing less than an “underwriting opportunity” for participants—i.e., a chance to ensure that Post reporters and editors shill for the lobbyist’s policy agenda by placing said employees in the home of the woman who signs their paychecks. Participating companies would have shelled out $25,000 ($250,000 for the full Weymouth dinner series), and naturally would have expected more than an amusing pinot noir for the outlay.

None of this is meant to suggest that Post employees receive daily marching orders from the for-profit commissariat atop the company’s publishing masthead. (Indeed, let the record show that I was a happy, and for the most part, a happily un-fucked-with, editorial hand at the Post from 2000 to 2004.) However, it is outlandish to pretend that a business model so deeply reliant on built-in conflicts, and so overt in its courtship of corporate interests, doesn’t translate into a mindset of deference to wealth and power. Just think of how the Post of old would have reported on a government agency that hosted private gatherings with six-figure entry fees for the industry leaders it oversaw. Think of how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who broke open the Watergate story by heeding the simple dictum to “follow the money,” might have reacted back in the day upon receiving word that the Republican National Committee had expended heroic amounts of cash to influence how congressional leaders came down on a key regulatory decision—and then presumed not only to assume a guise of utter impartiality but also to advise the public on the optimally prudent and mature positions to take on questions of regulation, wealth, and lobbying influence in the first place.

Then again, that’s probably why the opinion-makers holed up in today’s Washington Post ensure that it continues to be the primary source of sound advice on the socially ruinous moral trespasses of the poor: any honest reporter’s investigation of the stubborn infrastructures distorting the debate over wealth inequality would lead to the Post’s own boardroom.