This Wednesday, as millions of Americans picnic in the (increasingly) warm summer weather, there is little affection for the social system that carries the flag of freedom the holiday celebrates. With support for the present Congress recently falling into the single digits, so cartoonishly low it has become a significant news story, it’s notable that enthusiasm for American institutions in general is also surprisingly scarce: 67% of Americans indicated to Gallup in 2011 that corporations had too much power, tied with Wall Street and topped only by the lobbying industry.
While this disappointment in today’s social pillars creates a certain tension as Americans cook out and take in fireworks displays, the political and economic systems carry on more or less as they did before the wheels came off in the 2008 crisis. Notably, this election is set to break all records on campaign spending, in parallel with the giant growth in spending for lobbying the legislature. The giant proportions that money has assumed in politics suggest that rather than a day of celebration of independence from the first British Empire, the summer holiday should probably commemorate the tightly symbiotic relationship between the two great centers of modern power, capital and the state—a Codependence Day.
Not for nothing has “revolving door” become the cliché description of the interlocking circles of government and corporate authority. The incomparable opensecrets.org maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics provides an enormous database of the origins and career paths of literally thousands of professionals who have routinely crossed the private-public boundaries of power, working for the financial sector, the executive branch, lobbying agencies, regulators, industry, congress, and corporate umbrella groups.
The heart of this practice is the monumentally large lobbying industry. Considering the sector with the largest total lobbying expenditures, often called FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate), total spending on congressional lobbying in 2011 was a monumental $477 million, according to the CRP’s totals. For an American earning the median 2011 income, making that much money would take over 18,000 years. This is of course not counting the similar sums spent in election years funding campaigns.
The 2012 presidential campaign is particularly notable in this regard, as in addition to similar funding sources the two candidates are both somewhat uniquely identified with the financial sector. Romney, of course, cut his teeth at Bain Capital stripping firms of assets to the benefit of short-term profitability, whereas Obama has taken the mantle of the politician most heavily subsidized by Wall Street, with a to-date total exceeding $28 million over his two presidential campaigns. In fact, Romney and Obama have not only drawn enormous financial support from the FIRE sector, but indeed from many of the same specific companies. Among Obama’s largest-donating funders in his 2008 campaign, in the wake of the finance crisis and in anticipation of a bank reform bill, were megabanks Chase and Citigroup giving about three-quarters of a million dollars each, another half million from Morgan Stanley, and over a million from Goldman Sachs and its employees. Romney’s 2012 campaign has been even more dominated by Wall Street, including eight of his top ten biggest donors to date, including all four megabanks and Goldman Sachs once again topping the list, according to CRP tallies.
While this tightly incestuous power relationship is highly obvious today, it’s an old tradition; early US President and Constitution drafter James Madison said in the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787 that “In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of the landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place…our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation…so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”
Obama has not stood in the way of the public-sector cutbacks referred to as “austerity,” despite the modest 2009 stimulus bill and some recent election-year populist rhetoric. Romney has been closer to the GOP position of “helping” the economy through serial cuts to public services and jobs, most notoriously in his remark in Council Bluffs, Iowa that “[Obama] says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”
A contrasting view was provided by an American hero whose left-wing views have been expunged from the record, Martin Luther King. In 1967 he wrote in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Romney’s alleged deep spirituality must be on its deathbed.
This Fourth, real fireworks would be the Occupy-Tarhir-Madison-Montreal spirit spreading deeply into an isolated social fabric and bringing a lonely society together, rather than carrying on as subjects of the codependent institutions of money and power. Organizing, regrettably, is no picnic.
Rob Larson is Instructor of Economics at Tacoma Community College in Washington State. His first book, Bleakonomics, will be released in October from Pluto Press.