Nearly 35 years ago I met an old investment banker named Witt Stephens from Little Rock, Arkansas. He was one of the most affable and financially successful individuals in the world. At the time he had the largest Off-Wall-Street investment bank in the United States and, from what I understood, the best capitalized investment bank in the nation. Some really wonderful stories had circulated about his business dealings as well as his personal life; and some equally wonderful adages had been attributed to both he and his brother Jack. The one maxim I found most discerning was how he and his brother defined politics. They said that politics wasn’t the best game in town…it was the only game in town.
Why did they say that?
Well, in my mind there are a number of reasons, not least of which is the dreadfully deceptive nature of our politicians, and the insidious way many have wormed into most of our institutions, and effectively screwed them up.
But there was a much less sinister and much more unifying explanation: Politics wasn’t just about dealing with politicians and specific legislation and the assumed and claimed power that pervades. It was about having lunch with a friend or talking to an investor about opportunities, or visiting with a janitor about what was going on in his neighborhood, and on and on and on. It was this understanding: What we did in our daily lives, and how we engaged with others (how we politicked) at all times, was in fact important. Important enough to constantly be aware of how you lived your life, and the impression you gave to others about yourself. That was politicking. And politics, in this sense, IS the only game in town.
I’d like to tell you that Mr. Stephens lived in a simpler time, that he was na√Øve about the harsh realities in today’s world of business and politics; but the truth is that he grew up in an extremely tough time where making a living was markedly more difficult than today. It was a time when making it in business and making a difference in others’ lives came from hard work, perseverance and sheer determination. He and others like him were far from na√Øve. They were savvy individuals who would have made it in any age and almost any place on earth.
The insidious nature of money in politics
Mr. Stephens and others of that ilk were astutely aware of certain politicians’ deceptive natures. They knew how to deal with the phony, pretentious, two-faced scam artists on-the-take; those who portrayed a different image to voters with the help of slick public relations firms. Individuals like Mr. Stephens and many of today’s business people have learned this: It’s a requisite to keep politicians as close as possible, so the politicians won’t do harm to their businesses, and quite possibly might help their businesses. The irony: Politicians like that arrangement because it’s easier to shake down the businesses and enrich themselves. The arrangement has become mutually beneficial.
This realization, coupled with corporations’ institutional function–along with a good dose of greed–has made it preferable for businesses to guide the politicians, through the likes of lobbyists and political action committees (PACs). This cozy cooperative relationship–and the business decisions stemming from this realization–have morphed over the years and led to a pretty dreadful, unintended consequence: A grotesque form of governance institutionalized into such a seedy form, it’s now difficult for us commoners to recognize the purpose and function of our “political class.”
Many of us, including some businesses and politicians, are now wondering how to get out of this shameful state of affairs.
Defining Our Terms – the “isms”
Before I go any further in describing this relationship between businesses and politicians, let me define a few terms as they relate to how government exerts control on individuals and businesses. These definitions will help you and I appreciate this debate from a similar viewpoint, with no misunderstandings as to my intent in writing this column.
I am hopeful that we can all agree that a society’s creation of wealth, and the means of production by which wealth is created, are important components in the society’s development. (For those who would like to better understand this phenomenon, you can read about it in my book, The Chicken Came First.) Defining various political and economic systems that bear on our society’s social development and economic production, and our system’s ability to create wealth, all this is important to our discussion.
Keeping this in mind, let’s look at the various “isms” under which production of goods and services can take place.
In the economic sense, communism is defined as the people owning the means of production, socialism as the state owning the means of production, fascism as the state controlling the means of production, and capitalism as the private or corporate ownership and control of the means of production. Considering such, we might want to reflect on which of the “isms” allows for the greatest individual freedoms and which gives greatest support for the evolution and global expansion of democracy…assuming most of us would prefer the world’s people live free and under democratic forms of governance rather than authoritarian forms. (I tend to make that assumption because that has been my preference.)
Based on that reflection, let’s consider where we are on this scale of “isms,” and where we want to be. We do this to help us – not the politicians – decide which political and economic policies would be best suited to take us where we want to go. This is a critical point in our public debate. Why? Because I believe it’s healthier to make decisions about these important civic matters by voting and not by killing; keeping in mind that a couple of generations ago nearly 50 million people on earth were slaughtered over this very topic.
Such may happen again if we are not careful in selecting the future we want. We do that by being vigilant in choosing political leaders in a more deliberative manner; something that liberal democracies allow us to do. But this is something we as a body of voters have been inattentive to, due to our lack of education, the negligence of the media, and the duplicitous nature of our politicians and leaders.
Mistakes Made by the Business Community
Over the past 70 or 80 years–since the slaughter of the tens of millions of people I mentioned above–the business community has made a critical mistake. It has supposed that, if it spent money on politicians, they could protect the business community’s legitimate interests, and hopefully maximize business profits. This posture has, in fact, worked well for many companies, and for the wealthiest among us. Yet it has wrongly empowered politicians, endowing them with additional powers beyond those tolerable in a liberal democracy.
I say it is a critical mistake. This practice has totally screwed up the function of our democracy, and as we now see, has damaged our public discourse. In the vernacular: “those chickens have come home to roost.” And, if continued in its present form, this practice will ruin the historic U.S. business structure that has delivered to the world the most prosperous middle class ever seen.
Politicians consistently reinforce this practice, because the more authority they can get you to believe they have, and the more authority they can usurp and exert, the greater their chances to become financially enriched. Politicians knowingly and systematically shake down businesses, having them believe that, if they don’t give money to the “political class,” businesses’ interests won’t or can’t be protected. Here’s the ruse: The “political class” has figured out that it can create the scenario to make that situation a reality.
Compound this ruse with money, guarantees of future jobs, lobbying contracts, PAC money, compensation for sitting on corporate boards, or any number of forms of remuneration to politicians and bureaucrats from businesses. This has had the untended consequence of government becoming a de facto partner with business.
This set-up creates an arrogant, aggressive, controlling, authoritative government, which over a period of time adds costs to businesses’ bottom line both directly and indirectly. The government becomes the type of partner that says, “If you don’t do what I say and give me more of what you have and what I want, I’m going to cause you trouble.”
There is little difference under this condition between a politician and a mob boss or union boss that takes protection money from your business, or requires a business to put a freeloader on the payroll who doesn’t show up to work, but gets paid. The shake down of businesses under this scenario has escalated dramatically over the past few decades. The result: Politics is now all about money and not about the common good.
Businesses are–by function–somewhat indifferent to politicians’ deceptive practice, because a business’s primary choice is to make a profit. Whereas not so with the politician. Politicians have to make a conscious decision to screw all of us, because they want their piece-of-the-pie by way of the various forms of compensation noted above, and by voting themselves additional perks that none of us commoners get.
Because of the politicians’ deceptive practice, the insidious practice of paying politicians has had to escalate to keep up with their insatiable appetites. The “political class” has created a problem that they now tell voters they want to solve. Don’t believe them.
Politicians’ shameful intrusion into the functioning of businesses–and the business community’s immoral and scandalous response–has resulted in an arrogance of power where our government feels compelled to relentlessly march towards wielding more influence in our individual lives. This unrelenting intrusion has given government the pomposity for commandeering and redefining our unalienable rights. (In a future CFR column I will try to address a few thoughts about the nexus between these unalienable rights in a liberal democracy and how they relate to the “Political Class” and our Republic.)
Getting Money Out of the System
Having been intimately involved in a small business for the last three decades, and in my community’s neighborhood political movement over a 20-year period, I have heard people say this on numerous occasions: “We” should get money out of politics. In the past couple of years I have heard this cry intensify dramatically. It seems that most of us commoners on the left, right, and center, who are minimally informed, are fed-up and disgusted by the incessant political jugglery and lying. It seems that the typical citizen is ready for a revolt against both the “political class” and businesses specifically, and the government in general.
Changing our politicians’ behavior and their relationships with businesses (and vice versa) seems to be complex. But not so. It’s merely time consuming. There are a number of things we can do.
First, don’t be na√Øve. Politicians are not your friends or your allies. They caused the problem we face today, so don’t expect them to solve it.
Next, don’t expect our politicians to do what is best for our country. Because a person can put on a suit and activate slick oration skills doesn’t mean he is bright. Most politicians really don’t know what to do. If they knew what to do and weren’t soaking the system, our problems would have already been solved.
Expect the politicians and appointees to continue concerning themselves with their own personal agendas. That means money. Hire them to do a specific job. If they don’t do it, un-elect them, recall them, impeach them…just get rid of them somehow, and do it fast. Next, as my editor always says to me, get organized, get educated, and get active.
Don’t expect your elected representatives to pass a law disallowing them from taking PAC money, or sitting on boards after they get out of office, or working as a lobbyist, or working for a big corporation that does business with the government. Don’t expect the appointed bureaucrats to act ethical either. They will do the same as the politicians. From their perspective, it’s about cashing in, and getting rich off of access and writing a book. It’s not about serving you; it’s about blowing smoke up your apparel.
We have to appeal to businesses to change their governmental relations protocols with government officials and politicians. That is done by targeting businesses that have any relationship with former government officials and former politicians. You can go to Muckety and the Revolving Door at Open Secrets and find out which companies and politicians are the biggest offenders.
And you can appeal to your local Chambers of Commerce. Email them and tell them to rid their practices of hiring former politicians, law firms, and lobbying firms which deal with former politicians. Stress this: Until they break that political tie, you will organize others to boycott anything their business members manufacture. In your email, make sure you explain this: Doing the right thing is not only beneficial for their bottom line, but that their actions can help to save our democracy–a system which allows them to freely participate in markets around the world and to handsomely profit. Explain to them that they are peeing in their own drinking water.
For we the people to once again have true representation in the Presidency and in Congress, and for the American Revolution to once again become whole, businesses must not only rid themselves of these deviant practices. They must rid themselves of the politicians, appointees, and bureaucrats in their business dealings. Businesses need to have both a moral imperative to do the right thing, as well as a financial interest. And only we the consumers can cause that financial interest to be consequential.
If we want our politics to be more than “the only game in town” . . . if we want our politics to be the best game in town, we need to educate and motivate our businesses and politicians to become more ethical. And that’s by our taking back the power intended for we the people.