Stone: If it quacks like an oligarch, it must be Aspen |

Stone: If it quacks like an oligarch, it must be Aspen

Andy Stone
Stone’s Throw

Oligarchy has gotten a bad name lately — partly because it’s a bad thing, and mostly because no one knows what “oligarchy” really means.

We hear a lot in the news about Russian oligarchs, and so we assume that “oligarchy” is something Russian and, because Russia is particularly despicable these days (and by “these days” I mean the past century or two — except for the part where they accepted 20 million Russian deaths and pretty much defeated the Nazis and won that part of World War II, but still, even then, despicable) we figure oligarchy must be bad. You know, like Communism. (Except that Communism was invented by a German, so there you go. Cancels out that whole “defeated the Nazis” thing.)

But in fact, “oligarchy” comes from ancient Greek (doesn’t everything?), and it means “government by the few” — usually, a tiny, wealthy elite.

And that’s a bad thing, right? Even without Commies.

But now, a Princeton study claims to show that, as headlined by the usually very proper BBC, “U.S. is an oligarchy, not a democracy.”

Then, dumping the ancient Greek (and modern academese), the BBC explains that the study shows “The U.S. is dominated by a rich and powerful elite.”

Well, as the kids say, “Duh.”

Still, it’s good to have something obvious confirmed by actual science. I mean, everybody always knew that apples fall off trees, but it was good to have Ike Newton figure out that something called “gravity” (also not a Russian invention) was involved.

So, as if you didn’t know, rich people get what they want from government and the rest of us — which is to say, most of us — can go piss up a rope as far as our democratically elected representatives care.

And sadly, I’m beginning to realize that’s true here in Aspen too.

Oh sure, we like to kick up a fuss. And we hear a lot of painful howling from developers about how the Commies in local government are strangling business.

But really, when was the last time the rich guys really, truly lost? When was the last time they went home, broke and bleeding, crying for their mommies?

Sure, we managed to wring a few bucks out of them to build some affordable housing.

That was a good thing — and it left the rich guys howling even louder that the Commies had taken their money and used it to build housing for the rabble, who would just elect more damned Commies to local government and further oppress the already much-abused rich guys.

But really, folks, stop and think: We’ve elected fierce, tempestuous protectors of our local community values. We’ve elected calm, wise, psychologically astute protectors of our community values. We’ve elected intelligent, earnest protectors of our community values.

And still, we get the monstrous Aspen Art Museum. We get three, too-big townhouses behind Hotel Aspen. We get City Council discussing four-story hotels. We get three-story buildings popping up all over town, topped by multimillion-dollar mega-condos, inhabited by litigious billionaires. We get regular crops of vast mansions springing up like evil mushrooms fertilized by Satan’s own feces.

As one of my old college football cheers used to go, “Elevator! Elevator! We got the shaft!”

Maybe I’m just getting old, but I have to admit, it does get a bit discouraging.

We hold elections and the will of the community is clear, but we still get exactly what the rich guys wanted in the first place. (And if not “exactly” what they wanted, then damn near exactly what they wanted — and pretty much exactly what the community made pretty much exactly clear we did not want.)

We, as a community, or I, as a columnist, can haul off and kick a rich guy in the crotch, but they all seem to have solid-gold testicles and they feel no pain.

Or maybe they’ve just hired somebody else’s testicles to absorb the beating through the miracle of transferred pain. (Hey, they transferred the bills for their economic disasters to the U.S. government, certainly they can transfer the pain of a kick in the groin to some pathetic flunky on the payroll.)

We deliver our best kick and the rich guy just smirks while somewhere in the shadows a flunky — a lawyer or planner — doubles over and vomits in pain. But at $500 a billable hour, the flunky figures he can take the abuse.

Meanwhile, the rich guy howls about his hurt feelings and, worse, his dented profits. But those solid-gold testicles still gleam — as he anticipates explaining to the ruptured flunky that the $500-an-hour only applies to the instant of the kick itself. “I’m not paying you for time spent writhing on the floor! When you’re on the floor, you’re off the clock! Stand up and take it like a man!”

Like I said: Those guys never lose.

OK. Time out for clarification.

I am painting with a pretty broad brush. (Gee, imagine that.) Here in Aspen, it is not as simple as rich against poor.

The battle in Aspen pits those who care for the community over money (or ego) against those who see the community only as a path to more money (and ego).

The community crowd gets the votes, but the gimme guys get the gold.

And so we’re back to the oligarchy issue.

I have, in the past, mourned that Aspen once was on the cutting edge of social change and intellectual and artistic endeavor, but that all of that seemed lost when the billionaires famously pushed the mere millionaires out of town.

But now, with the news from Princeton (oh, revered Ivy League ivory tower, American home to Albert Einstein), I suddenly see that we are once again at the forefront, leading the way as America staggers from democracy to oligarchy.

And so we sing to our new masters: “Oh beautiful rapacious guys, your amber waves of gain. Your golden testicles majesty that never feel the pain.”

Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is