To date, it’s been easy to ignore the various “Occupy” movements around the country. Protesters pitched their tents hither and yon (both legally and illegally) but could never explain what, exactly, they were protesting about.
That may be changing. Even as federal authorities threaten to end their protest, Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney says at least one protester has finally rallied behind a cause. “[Brian] Eister is devoting much of his energy to a campaign designed to reduce the role of big money in American government and politics,” McCartney wrote on Jan. 21. “I think that cause offers the chronically unfocused Occupy movement its best chance to unify around a single issue with the potential to attract popular support.”
Occupy D.C. apparently supports a Constitutional amendment that would curb corporate involvement in politics. “[W]ith public officials basically at the mercy of campaign donors, they don’t have the leverage to create real change even if they want to.” Eister says.
But the truth is very simple: The only way to get the money out of politics is to get Washington out of the business of handing out money.
This would be easier said than done, of course. Today’s federal government spends roughly $3.7 trillion, more than $1 trillion of that borrowed from future taxpayers. It pays for everything from fighter jets (although fewer of those than it used to) to food stamps (many more of those than it used to -- $72.5 billion in 2010, up from about $40 billion in 2008).
But the fact is that the more the federal government involves itself in day-to-day life, the more people will line up to lobby the federal government. “The best way to make money is by having political connections with the Obama administration and the Democratic Party,” John Hinderaker opined recently at Powerline. “For every dollar that a member of President Obama’s campaign finance committee contributed to his campaign, that member’s company has received nearly $25,000 from the Obama administration. How’s that for a return on investment?”
That’s true in the financial industry as well. Rather than focusing on starting new businesses and thus creating jobs, many financiers are turning to cronyism. “Wall Street can do math, and the math looks like this: Wall Street + Washington = Wild Profitability,” wrote Kevin Williamson last year at National Review. “Free enterprise? Entrepreneurship? Starting a business making and selling stuff behind some grimy little storefront? You’d have to be a fool. Better to invest in political favors.”
Even if a company isn’t seeking specific favors, it needs to be in the game. For proof, look to the “other” Washington, Washington state. For years as it grew, hiring thousands of Americans and indirectly creating jobs for millions more, Microsoft didn’t have much of a D.C. lobbying operation.
“Bill Gates resisted the notion that a software company needed to hire a lot of lobbyists and lawyers. He didn't want anything special from the government, except the freedom to build and sell software. If the government would leave him alone, he would leave the government alone,” journalist and former Microsoft employee Michael Kinsley noted in the L.A. Times. But that changed around the turn of the century.
In 1998, the U.S. government and 20 states sued Microsoft for its alleged monopolistic activities. “The company barely escaped being split up after it was ruled an unlawful monopolist in 2000 for using its stranglehold on the PC market with its Windows operating system to cripple competitors, such as Netscape's Navigator Web browser,” the Seattle Times reported. The case taught the company the importance of connections.
“It bulked up on lawyers and hired the best-connected lobbyists,” Kinsley wrote. “Soon Microsoft was coming under criticism for being heavy-handed in its attempts to buy influence. But the sad thing is that it seems to have worked. Microsoft is no longer Public Enemy No. 1.”
In his recent State of the Union address, a speech that really served as the first leg of what promises to be a long campaign season, President Obama declared: “I bet most Americans are thinking the same thing right now: Nothing will get done this year, or next year, or maybe even the year after that, because Washington is broken.”
But that’s not quite right. Washington isn’t “broken,” because it manages to get lots of stuff done. Too much stuff, in fact. From bailouts for car makers to handouts for car buyers.
Want to get the money out of politics? Don’t start by trying to crack down on the donors. Start by eliminating the favors they’re trying to buy with their donations. When those favors dry up, they’ll go back to earning money the old fashioned way: by making things and employing people.