Politics Is Too Important
The night of November 8, 2016 is a night that will live in infamy. The polls had unanimously predeclared Hillary Clinton the President-elect. The evening news reactions from that night are particularly memorable, with liberal commentators, comedians, and everyday liberals devolving from smug confidence to shock and denial as Trump took Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and the Presidency. On Colbert's Late Show, Mark Halperin, a political analyst (nominally), declared upon realizing Trump’s inevitability, “Outside of the Civil War [and] World War II, and including 9/11, this may be the most cataclysmic event the country’s ever seen”. I needn’t explain the sheer idiocy of this lack of perspective, but see sidebar just in case.
620,000 Americans were killed or wounded between 1861-1865. In WWII, the US alone suffered 418,000 casualties. 68,000 Americans died in Vietnam. Legal slavery lasted for 200+ years in America.
The morning after, stories were told of co-workers crying at work, entire offices empty on sick leave. The beginnings of the “Not My President” movement appeared – the first fallout from the blast. What didn’t happen was nuclear war, an invasion of the Middle East, a surrender to Russia, or the elimination of NATO. In fact, nothing Trump has done or vowed to do is new in America, or in this century. But so what? Trump really is erratic and backwards, so can we really blame a talking head for hyperbole?
Maybe not. But Halperin’s wolf-crying is ubiquitous today, which has drastic effects for society and the economy. If I asked most people what they thought was the biggest problem with this inflammatory and polarizing rhetoric, the answer would likely be: the demise of bipartisanship and a malinformed public. Certainly deleterious, but these are only tips of an iceberg. The real cost of divisive, high-stakes politics comes with its gluttonous appetite for capital – public and personal wealth, human-hours, raw and digital materials – and most importantly, Intellect.
It may not seem like the case, especially at present, but politics continually attracts the brightest, most ambitious minds – Benjamin Franklin, Hamilton, Webster, Lincoln. It also distracts or destroys many of our greatest creators – Zuckerberg, Gates, Rockefeller, Tesla, Morgan. This funnelling of resources and genius into an institution that rarely innovates or creates wealth accumulates to form a massive impediment to progress.
The recent spike in politicization will only exacerbate this black hole situation. The stakes attached to the reins of government, especially the Executive, are now larger than ever: the number of Federal Judges, Department Secretaries, and Executive Orders are all at all-time highs. Like a big block of cheese, this has invited a swarm of agenda-laden bureaucrats, businesspeople, and busybodies to swarm Capitol Hill and all 50 State Houses. In 2016, $6.5 Billion was spent nationwide on elections. A further $8.24 Billion was spent on media coverage of the two candidates. Since 2008, lobbying expenses have surpassed $3.3 Billion every single year. This is money that isn’t going towards manufacturing goods, developing software, building houses, feeding people, or funding startups. It is being burned by corporations and unions in exchange for desirable legislation and kickbacks.
The more power a government grants itself to act, the more profitable it will be to devote vast resources to acquiring the reins of government, the more wealth and intellect disappear into the swamp. Every time Fox News and CNN or John Oliver and Colbert tell you it is vital we repeal or enact a law, block or approve an appointee, they ensure the escalation of this conflict, luring more labor and capital into the abyss.
Without such immense, and frankly baseless, power vested in government, few would care about who controlled the Junior Senate Seat from Nevada, or what corporations could or couldn’t televise on what dates. In 2018, however, politics is simply too vital to too many people for one party, one industry, one corporation or union, to withdraw and deescalate the situation. How can General Motors, Chrysler, JP Morgan Chase, or any of the other 977 recipients of the 2008 Bailout ever downsize their lobbying efforts knowing another $700 Billion could be theirs to steal from taxpayers the next time they run their company into the ground? How can those who didn’t receive bailouts keep from kicking themselves for not investing more in lobbying? The truth is, they can't.
The same concept applies to every sector from education to the Military Industrial Complex, and even agriculture. This is not to say that any of these industries is to blame for this spiral of waste, but rather to illustrate the destructive and universal effects of this problem.
The above graphs, and many more indicate sharp increases in lobbying expenditures in 2007-2008 as well as in the years after. Total Lobbying expenditure grew by 15% in 2008 and has never returned to pre-2008 levels since. Walmart, one of America's biggest companies not included in the bailout, doubled political spending between 2006 and 2008. Goldman Sachs, whose executives experienced the insane profitability of government bailouts, continues to increase lobbying expenditures.
Faced with this problem, several responses have surfaced: Firstly, it might be tempting to say, “There’s no problem; it is a corporation's or individual's right to spend as they please”. This might be legally and/or morally true, but it dodges the issue. Secondly, legislation is proposed: Campaign Finance Reform. This has come in a variety of forms, but all have failed, either functionally or politically. A third option, resignation, remains open and unassailable, but defeatist and similar to the first option.
The political solution, the only proposed plan to have gained traction, is campaign finance reform.
Most politicians have no qualms with a high stakes government, and even the libertarian ones hardly seem to care, instead; like the rest of their breed, they focus on seizing the reins, not deescalating the situation. Then there are people like Elizabeth Warren, who see real problems with the government – corruption, selfishness, misallocation of funds – but they react by calling for more government, regulation to fix regulation. While that might be a viable solution to other problems here, lawmaking and the power it carries is precisely the problem. Passing a law to divest power from lawmaking simply doesn’t make sense. Nor is functional, enforceable campaign finance reform possible, given constitutional protections and existing jurisprudence.
Citizens United, the widely decried 2010 Supreme Court decision may have expanded the possibilities for politics to devour wealth, but it is not the problem itself, merely an exacerbating symptom. Campaign finance and interest-group lobbying was a problem long before 2010. Moreover, all campaign finance reform is merely reactionary, attempting to stem the flow of money while failing to disincentivize it or prevent it at its origin. Notice in the graphs above, that 2010 is hardly a remarkable year for public expenditure.
In truth, the fact that Congress seized the power to enact such legislation (BCRA) and the fact that the Supreme Court had the power to reverse such legislation (Citizens United v. FEC) are symptomatic of the problem itself. In concentrating ever more jurisdiction in the Federal Government, they lure more investment by raising the potential for profit.
It is impossible to accurately measure the positive effects the billions of dollars and human-hours might have had if they were spent in the economy and not in politics, and it's very easy to ignore passive, continuous wrongs. But that doesn't mean the effect is insignificant. We shouldn't give up on reclaiming that money, and much more, for purposes which increase societal wealth and quality of life. Only, as we have seen with BCRA and other finance laws, we cannot use the law/state/force to reclaim this money. Politics cannot be used to deescalate politics. Only people, motivated, patient, voting people can achieve that.