"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Money Talks–It’s What Makes Us American

A lot of ‘progressive’ angst has been expressed about the recent Supreme Court McCutcheon ruling which will result in a more open and fair campaign financing.  It shakes the foundations of incumbency and reduces the chicanery which characterizes the present system.  The well-meaning Congress of the post-Watergate era wanted to ‘clean up the mess’, but it just created a network of PACs, Super-PACs, and accounting black magic.  Now anyone can give as much as they want to whomever they want.  All above-board, transparent, and there for everyone to see.

The Supreme Court ruling expanded on its earlier Hobby Lobby and Citizens United decisions which continued the recasting of the constitutional principal of free speech. Privately-held corporations do have many of the same rights as American citizens, the Court said, because they are a collectivity of like-minded individuals whose will is expressed through their owners.

Most importantly McCutcheon finally etched in stone the even more fundamental principal of the Republic – Money Talks.  Money is not only the currency of the marketplace, but that of family, community, and nation. The United States is the most contractual country in the world, and while contract law and an objective judiciary are the pillars of a just society, we have taken the notion of legal relationships far beyond anyone else.

Everything is contractual, subject to suit and litigation.  Marriage is a contract with complex pre-nuptial agreements and years-long mediation and court proceedings. Schools, hospitals, and other formerly public institutions are now privatized, make a profit and are therefore increasingly at risk from economically punishing lawsuits. Pools, playgrounds, front walks, and driveways are constructed to minimize legal action and financial penalties.  Relationships with government have changed from a simple mutual trust to a complex system of tax and property law.  Money changes hands in all contracts, and individuals act more than ever in their economic self-interest rather than on a set of moral or ethical principles. Contracts, designed to create order and justice in a free and open democracy, lessen the need for individual judgment.

Money determines who you are and what you will become.  Parents with means spend thousands on their children to increase their chances of success.  Wealth begets wealth and children with inheritance have more freedom to explore, take risks, and to make even more money than their parents.

Money is a social indicator, and it is no surprise that the first question people ask at social gatherings is “What do you do?”.  Work is the defining characteristic of Americans, but money is the subtext.  The questioner hears ‘Law student’ and the mental cash registers start clicking.  ‘Art student’ is an invitation to freshen the gin-and-tonic.  There is no such thing as finding one’s own, comfortable level of competence.  Upward mobility is the only acceptable path.

Billions are spent on commercial products. The marketplace is awash with products we never knew we needed.  Not only one product, but a dizzying array of similar products all competing for our dollars. We are comfortable in this world and have learned since childhood how to assess value.  Not all of us, of course, and there is a sucker born every minute; but he is nothing compared to the yearly spawn of new consumers for whom profit, gain, and economic risk assessment is in their blood.

Generous contributions will always affect college admissions.  The children of the benefactor whose name is inscribed on a plaque on the new Harold B. Simmons Science Wing at Duke will surely matriculate in the Fall. Money talks when it comes to promoting social causes.  Whether it is the ‘progressive’ committed to stopping global warming or Tom Steyer, billionaire businessman who spends liberally to defeat Republican climate naysayers, both give money.

The arts in America are defined by money.  The artist in his garret may still shiver in the under-heated loft, but is warmed by the promise of untold millions for his painting.  New writers rarely tap away on stories and memoirs for themselves or their children, but rush to print to make a name and a fortune.  The art market is hot.  The music industry is hot.  Hollywood is hot; and we all want a piece of the action.

So the idea that money does not rule politics and always will is naïve at best.  Anyone with two eyes and a reasonably functioning brain is aware that money is the only currency in America.  We live and breathe money.  We live and die money.  Money defines us and is our armor, our sword, and our banner.

America has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the world, and it is no surprise why.  Apathy and indifference are the catch-all reasons for staying at home on November 2nd, but the real reason is a growing feeling of disenfranchisement.  The supposedly democratic process of primaries is a fiction.  All those who run have money behind them, represent monied interests, and will be beholden to them after the election.  Why bother?

In the old days of Hinky Dink and Bathhouse John, Chicago’s most infamous and corrupt aldermen, walking-around money was de rigeur.  Politicians bought votes and openly curried favor with generous monied interests.  Politics was a free-for-all and money ruled.  Now money still rules, but for decades we have been lulled into thinking that Congress had introduced civility, honesty, and transparency to the political process.  Nothing could have been farther from the truth.  Money has a way of finding the smallest crack, the tiniest loophole, the most miniscule fissure in laws, rules, and regulations.  It always gets where it’s going.

It is disingenuous to believe that any government regulation can stop the flow of political money because laws are made by politicians many of whom run for office every two years.  It is equally naïve to assume that Wall Street bankers will kneel respectfully before the agencies of government and adhere to their rules.  They will pay obeisance in public, but behind the scenes they will be cooking up hedge funds, credit debt swaps, and other financial instruments that will make them even more money.

The United States has fought a losing fight against drugs because they have underestimated the value of the market and the strength of demand.  Billions have been spent with virtually no result.  Finally state governments are getting smart and legalizing marijuana – a welcome step into the real world.  The same argument can be made for campaign financing.  The demand for political dollars will not go away – ever – and it is time to open the market and the books.  Democrats are more worried than Republicans because they do not have the same deep-pockets corporate donor base; but they will get over it and either change their platform to attract money (most likely) or chase after donors with an interest in climate change and gay rights (unlikely).  In other words the playing field has been leveled and Democrats don’t like it.

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