Post Date: 10/8/2011

Occupy Wall Street

Thousands of people are now “mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.” They are demonstrating all over the country. In contrast to the Tea Party, these demonstrators are not opposed to taxes and “ Obamacare” but instead are angered by the excessive, almost total influence that money has on the political process. On January 20, 2010, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision that split along “party” lines, ruled that under the First Amendment, corporations were people and money was speech. This ruling enables corporate boards to give essentially unlimited funds to influence politicians and candidates of their choice. Of course, unions can also give money but the membership of unions nationwide and their influence has been steadily decreasing while the political influence of what I would call “big business” has been increasing. An example of the influence of money in politics was recently seen when a House committee was holding hearings on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The CEO of BP was undergoing questioning and when it came time for Representative Joe Barton, R, Texas, to question the witness he started with an apology to BP for the trouble that President Obama had caused the company. The President had negotiated an agreement with BP that they would establish a $20 billion escrow account to help Gulf coast residents whose livelihoods had been compromised or destroyed by BP’s negligence. An examination of Rep. Barton’s donor list will help one understand what lubricates his thinking.

Then of course there’s Goldman Sachs, who contributed to the housing bubble and worldwide financial collapse in 2008 by putting bad housing loan packages together as “securities,” offering them for sale to investors, and selling them short (betting against them) at the same time. (Standard and Poors, who downgraded United States bonds on August 5, 2011, rated these “securities” as AAA.) When questioned in Congress about this sequence of events the CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein, did not deny the practice but just pointed out that it was not a major source of their income. When another officer was asked by the same Congressional committee whether or not he thought that he should always consider his clients’ best interests in his business dealings, he was struck dumb. He never answered the question and finally another officer at the table said that of course they should always keep their clients’ best interests in mind. Watching the hearings I felt that the first man’s silence was the more honest answer of the two. He left me with the impression that he had never considered that question before. Certainly the behavior of Goldman Sachs as a company suggests that a lot of members of the organization would have answered like the first witness.

The point of the preceding stories is that money talks in politics and that some or a lot of those who have a lot of money are interested in that and that only. Considering the welfare of the rest of the citizens of the country just doesn’t come up any more frequently in their thoughts or conversations than the geometric term “cosine” does. So the people of the Occupy Wall Street movement are right to be irritated.

What is to be done? First we really do have to get money out of politics and have all campaigns from dogcatcher to President be publically financed. We’ve all heard the expression, “Money talks and bullshit walks.” In politics I think that this statement can be modified to, “Money talks and careful, reasoned analysis and proposed action walks.” This might be further modified to, “Money talks.” Legislators and executive officials can be bought. An interesting study to do would be to list all of any politician’s campaign donors and then list the number of votes cast by that politician against any one of his donors’ interests. One problem with listing all of a politician’s campaign donors is that current practice allows a lot of the money that the Supreme Court calls speech to be anonymous. Most of us think of free speech as the right to stand up on a soapbox in the public square and say what is on our minds. In contrast, money as speech is allowed to be anonymous when given to a political action committee. Granted, not all speech has to be public. Priest-penitent speech is privileged as is lawyer-client speech and speech in boardrooms where the board is planning nefarious business practices. What honest reason can there be for hiding to whom one gives political contributions? There might be some but what are they? Do they trump the public’s right to know who is buying their representative’s votes?

One may argue that it is not the money, it is the politicians who put themselves up for sale that constitute the real problem. It is said that prostitution is our oldest profession. That may be so. When one can sell oneself for money, there will always be people who will do it. But if politics were not a profession in which one could get rich by selling votes, perhaps a different type of person would go into the field. Isn’t it worth a try? There is another problem with money governing politics. Think back to your college days. Were your classmates who went to business school the smartest people in the class? In my college they clearly weren’t. Yet many people who go into and succeed in business, particularly banking, with the idea of becoming rich eventually come to have a disproportionate influence on political decision making. Perhaps the best example now is the “debate” over global warming, climate change, and the human contribution to the rising CO2 in the atmosphere contributed by fossil fuels. Scientists are all but unanimous that human activity is a major cause of global warming. Yet oil companies, who want us to continue using their products, are successfully buying the votes of legislators to prevent action that would slow or reverse the increase of atmospheric CO2. Reminiscent of Goldman Sachs, the oil companies are putting their short term profits ahead of the welfare of the whole planet. And they are being successful because they are allowed to buy politicians. Here’s the rub. The smartest people in the class have shown clearly that our excessive use of fossil fuels is harming the planet and that the sea level could rise by as much as six feet over the 21st century. But their speech has less value than that of the kids who chose to use their intelligence to make a lot of money because money talks louder than science in politics.

One may argue that it is not the money, it is the politicians who put themselves up for sale that constitute the real problem. It is said that prostitution is our oldest profession. That may be so. When one can sell oneself for money, there will always be people who will do it. But if politics were not a profession in which one could get rich by selling votes, perhaps a different type of person would go into the field. Isn’t it worth a try?
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