The word â€˜populismâ€™ has become almost synonymous with the practice of the politics of envy and an arbitrary economic leveling. Its practitioners were often a dime’s worth of difference from socialists.
It had a peak of support as a political movement during the Golden Age in which some dinner parties featured gold flatware and cigarette girls passing out products rolled with segments of hundred dollar bills. Railroads were seen as rapacious instruments for robbing men of the soil of the fruits of their labor and those who robbed trains of cash were often treated as popular heroes.
During our Great Depression, few truly starved and the Rockefellers spent part of their fortune constructing a complex that was a short-term risk. Yet jobs were created and future profits were assured.
The politics of envy seems to have lost its effectiveness. There are some very wealthy people but dynastic fortunes seem to vanish after a couple of generations. Involuntary hunger is a rarity. Upward mobility is not hampered by a caste system or other arbitrary barriers.
The free market has its fluctuations but has never allowed the near-universality of poverty associated with socialism.
But should we seek a society where socioeconomic Darwinism rule in a harsh and arbitrary fashion? Those who would take the writings of Ayn Rand as holy writ with the same uncritical eye as present in the most rigid Christian Fundamentalist might agree. Yet there are needs for safeguards and safety nets.
Should we envision a new and refined version of populism?
Banks (especially the larger ones) have created automatic mechanisms for rapacity. Charges for services often bear no resemblance to their cost. When the operations involve credit cards, matters get even worse. A couple of payments that are a day or two late can result in escalation of interest rates to levels once deemed to be criminally usurious. Subsidiaries of â€˜respectableâ€™ banks may offer â€˜payday loansâ€™ to the unsophisticated at rates over 100% per annum. Self-serving â€˜public interestâ€™ advertisements may be run on programs unlikely to be watched by their usual clientele but the ads to provide some window dressing.
Insurance companies may use arcane evaluations of credit reports to justify escalation of rates. While this might seem appropriate for habitual deadbeats, a credit score approaching 800 and no record of default is not a shield. A number of â€˜gotchaâ€™s are available to rip off the consumer. One excuse is an account with a balance near the credit limit. This can be among a number of accounts with no balance and others well below the limit. The single offending account may have been recently opened to obtain a discount on a major purchase. A first payment well over the minimum should give a hint that the purchaser is going to pay off the entire amount in a few months to avoid paying any interest. Automated evaluation does not take this into account.
One problem in Ireland was the drain on the local economy of absentee landlords. Many of the locals were descendants of persons dispossessed by conquerors. They had to pay increasing rents for property taken from their ancestors without any compensation. Disputes often provoked violence and the landlords did hold valid titles. A related situation exists in Delaware and it involves the sites of â€˜manufactured homeâ€™. The plots of land are small and many are owned by person with powerful connections. Rents escalate in an often arbitrary fashion. What is the answer? Legislators seem unable to fashion an equitable solution.
We need more elected officials who can balance a respect for property and a sense of fairness. Such persons would not be likely to get any campaign contributions from some moneyed special interests but the battle needs to be waged.