Trump and the Swamp

June 6, 2017

Trump promised to drain the swamp. We can agree that the swamp is the predominance of special interests over Americans of ordinary means. Bernie Sanders won many hearts and minds by refusing to take big money. Trump claimed independence from big money because he had so much. Clinton lost many votes because she accepted large speaking fees and contributions. A large populist wave by financially ordinary Americans swept the country.

People credited Trump’s promise to drain the swamp. With Trump in power, we’re entitled to look at his actions. Indeed we should.

Most Democrats long tried to take big money out of political campaigns. With some exceptions, like John McCain, Republicans worked to protect the use of money in politics. In the McCain-Feingold Act, Congress managed to compromise between their positions. But the Supreme Court, dominated by Republican appointees, invalidated restrictions on campaign contributions, and held in Citizens United, that corporations could contribute funds straight from corporate treasuries. Heard anything lately from the White House about campaign finance regulation? I didn’t think so.

Trump wants to lower the tax and regulatory burdens on the wealthiest people and companies. He claims in justification that the extra costs harm American workers. I recognize the heated debates about those claims. I’ve repeatedly explained in this commentary that putting more money in the hands of the wealthiest people and corporations is unlikely to spur investment or improve the position of American workers. It won’t help American workers because corporations can and do spend extra money everywhere, including abroad. It won’t help American workers because extra wealth can be and is spent on nonproductive goods or investments. And it won’t improve the position of American workers because there is no shortage of capital in this country, so putting more in in wealthy or corporate pockets is like pouring mud into the Mississippi.

Eliminating regulations will also put money in wealthy and corporate hands but hurts everyone else. Unions have been big proponents of safety regulations because they protect the health and safety of workers, and, we should add, of consumers and citizens.

Trump’s proposed budget also pulls up the safety net and hands the savings to corporations and the wealthy. The safety net protects people when they fall on hard times, when illness drains their bank accounts and strains their budgets, when corporate decisions leave workers struggling to find new jobs and forced to feed families on minimum wage jobs. These have direct and indirect costs for all of us. Losing a job can be temporary but it can also be a fall into a rabbit hole that sucks out everything we’ve invested in our homes, our retirement, and stresses, even breaks up our families. In 2008 those factors spread and took a lot of us down. The safety net was intended in part to help slow or stop economic downturns. 2008 overwhelmed what was left of the safety net but Trump would make it worse.

And health care decisions don’t just affect the most vulnerable. None of us want people spreading serious or medicine-resistant strains of TB, Zika, MRSA and other communicable diseases. Effective strategies against communicable disease involve keeping the diseases out of the population to the extent possible.

In Trump’s budget, the savings from all these cuts go to the 1/10 of 1%, the wealthiest of the wealthy, the very people who should be giving back rather than sucking at the public til. Trump promised to drain the swamp. But Trump IS the swamp.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 6, 2017.

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THE POWER OF MONEY: First in a Series on Money in Politics

July 5, 2016

This post is re-released to include a new report by the Roosevelt Institute. During the previous two months, I participated in the Demos Legal Convening at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Scholars Strategy Network meeting on Purchasing Power at the Soros and Ford Foundations. The meetings focused on reducing the impact of money in politics, which will be the subject of several of my next commentaries.

Money creates dependence on the narrow group of people who can fund campaigns.[1]

In turn, money affects elections. The best work I’ve seen is not yet public but confirms our intuitions – money increases the votes candidates get and affects how the elected vote. Scholars have even been able to trace which legislators switched votes on legislation.

The economic impact is huge. By non-enforcement of antitrust laws and providing regulatory breaks, political protection enables companies to take advantage of the public. Here, Albany politicians arranged to have themselves showered with gifts by creating a market payable in contributions by corporations seeking permission to build casinos. That’s also why the state ignored the evidence of harm casinos do. On the national level, political protection for favored corporations and industries has had enormous consequences.

The Roosevelt Institute estimates that the financial sector alone cost the public “between $40,000 and $70,000 for every man, woman, and child in the U.S., or between $105,000 and $184,000 for the typical American family”! No new taxes. Just regulatory bonanzas that take our money and put it in company pockets, because of the benefits our elected representatives do for them.[2]

Instead of facilitating productive activity, the financial sector now threatens prosperity, overcharges for brokerage services, ruins lives through predatory lending, misallocates talent to socially unproductive employment, re-orients corporate behavior “to short term speculation that costs jobs, wages, and productivity growth; and choos[es] poor investments that put people’s retirement incomes at risk. …”[3] It’s had a huge impact through private and public pensions, mortgage financing, credit derivatives, asset management services and predatory lending, imposing the resulting costs and financial instability on society and on the poor.[4]

Compare those figures with the costs of political campaigns. Reported expenses for the 2012 federal election cycle including both the presidential and congressional races exceeded $6 billion. But compare the $6 billion with the trillions that the financial sector alone has cost. We are talking about a return to investment of thousands of times, even when the cost of lobbying is added.[5] The costs of political campaigns are small change by comparison. Which is why investing in politics is such a good deal for those looking for big profits at public expense.

That’s why in an upcoming commentary, I will talk about public financing of political campaigns. If you want to spend your money to fill corporate deep pockets, that’s your business. But I’d rather get a lot more value for mine.

— This commentary was originally broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 5, 2016.

[1] Lawrence Lessig, Republic Lost (2011); Ian Shapiro, Notes Toward a Conditional Theory of Rights and Obligations in Property, in Stephen E. Gottlieb, Brian H. Bix, Timothy D. Lytton and Robin L. West, Jurisprudence Cases and Materials: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Law and Its Applications 914 (LexisNexis 3d ed. 2015) (“defin[ing] freedom in terms of the multiplication of dependent relationships”); Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (2011); BRUCE BUENO DE MESQUITA, et al,  The Logic Of Political Survival (2003).

[2] http://rooseveltinstitute.org/overcharged-high-cost-high-finance/ (page 3 of the downloaded report).

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 4, 40-42. And see generally www.OpenSecrets.org.

[5] For studies of the return to lobbying without, however, including the cost of campaign finance, see Lee Drutman, Lobby more, pay less in taxes, http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2012/04/16/lobby-more-pay-less-in-taxes/ (note that their studies are examples, not totals); Steven Strauss, Here’s Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Lobbying For Your Business, http://www.businessinsider.com/everything-you-always-wanted-to-know-about-lobbying-2011-11.


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