October 30, 2015

Why Americans are Angry at Politicians

The political party establishments, expert political commentators and the media are clearly bewildered by the staying power of anti-establishment candidates like Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, and Bernie Sanders.

They should not be surprised.  Americans are angry about the political system and for good reason: they not only feel that the country is going in the wrong direction because of inept or ideologically driven political agendas, and extreme partisanship, but they also feel disempowered to change that system.  Are they right?

I believe that they are.  In many different ways, government officials at all levels have taken power away from the people. Many of them have stopped being public servants and have used government to get rich and/or powerful.

When I was growing up, we thought about government leaders in the mold of George Washington, who chose to step down after two terms as President because he fundamentally opposed the concentration of power in one or even a few individuals, and particularly was deeply concerned that political parties would lead to despotism.  Our Founding Fathers believed strongly in checks and balances and in limited government powers.  We have gotten very far away from this vision.

How has this happened?  There are at least 14 ways in which Americans are being disempowered:

  • Voting requirements and processes have been designed to support the party controlling the elective machinery in each state.
  • Politically driven redistricting has been used to disenfranchise individuals and groups that do not support the party in power.
  • Campaign contribution rules are designed to make it easier for those supporting a candidate to contribute and to make it more difficult for challengers.
  • Running for office is punitively difficult, expensive, and a full-time process, even for incumbents, but even more so for challengers.
  • Incumbents become entrenched in legislative districts at both the federal and state levels because of the absence of term limits.
  • Government employment is unrewarding for individuals committed to excellence and public service because of civil service rules, and excessively onerous financial disclosure rules.
  • Government union leaders, especially at the state and local level, are expected to be responsive to their members, not to the broader public that they and their members are expected to serve.  Whatever their beliefs about the convergence of their members' interest and the public interest, if one conflicts with the other, the interest of their members takes priority.  In fact, they are most likely to be responsive to the most vocal and vulnerable of their members.
  • The media has made rational policy advocacy difficult because controversy and inter-party hostility garners higher ratings, as we saw in the recent Republican Presidential debate with the unprofessional performance of the CNBC “moderators.”
  • The federal government has used its power to grant money to take power away from state and local governments.
  • Governments at all levels abuse their purchasing power to enforce policies that a majority of voters would not endorse.
  • We have too many special government units that have most, if not all, of the powers of government without any accountability to the voters.
  • Governments, particularly the federal government, use executive orders to drive policy agendas, bypassing legislative oversight.
  • More and more jobs and businesses are getting regulated and subject to licensing for no good reason. From 1968 to today, the percentage of jobs that require some form of government licensing for participation has risen from 5% to over 35%.
  • Elected and appointed officials have mastered the art of getting rich through their government service by using their power and inside information to benefit themselves at the expense of the public.

When you put all this together, it paints a compelling picture of a vast majority of the American people who are struggling to make ends meet, unresponsive and over-reaching government at all levels, and government officials who are getting rich from government service.

Giving more power to government officials is not the answer, because while Ronald Reagan’s comment about government being the problem was simplistic and harsh in many respects, he was directionally correct. The more power governments have over our lives, the more opportunity there is for abuse and cronyism.

We need to drive our productive energies back into parts of the economy in which individuals do not have monopoly power over other individuals.  The more power we allow governments to have, the more we redirect entrepreneurship away from what adds value to people and toward what enables people to use government laws, regulations, procurement policies, and practices to get rich at public expense.

Some have argued that having part-time legislators is the solution to excessive concentrations of government power. That does not work, because of the size and scope of government to intrude itself into our lives. In certain states, part-time legislators often secure extra revenue in seemingly private professional service businesses because individuals or businesses want to curry favor with them, with New York State being an egregious example.

Some have argued that placing strict and low limits on campaign contributions will level the playing field.  They are misguided.  Whatever the federal or state governments enact to control imbalances of power can be easily circumvented:

  • Many elected officials have used charitable foundations organized by supporters as disguised political campaign systems, with the Clinton Foundation just the most sophisticated and recent example. I experienced that as CEO when elected officials tried to strong arm me and other officials to make contributions to their pet charitable causes.
  • Many large businesses have implicitly held out the carrot of rich post-government employment, consulting or investor opportunities to lawmakers.  Efforts to prevent conflicts of interest invariably fail to match the creativity of these post-government service arrangements. Stamps.com made Postmaster General Marvin Runyon a member of its Board and awarded significant shares of stock to him.
  • Clearly, those who wanted to curry favor with the Clintons helped them secure a favorable financing on their home after Bill Clinton left office and Hillary Clinton became a U.S. Senator.  The speaking engagement offers and the fees attached to them were also thinly disguised efforts to contribute to their future political campaign efforts.  Whether Secretary Clinton was motivated to behave differently is beside the point.  Those who wanted to get money to her found a way to do so within the limits of the law.

Most of the successful elective campaigns for major offices that have not been undertaken by experienced, savvy professional politicians have been undertaken by very wealthy individuals like Michael Bloomberg or Jon Corzine, whose first elective offices were the Mayor of New York and a Senator from New Jersey, respectively.

The image of a person of modest means who does not have access to significant backing from a handful of wealthy people securing significant elective office is a myth that is hard to replicate in the real world.  The 1930’s film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington describes a country we would like to see, as opposed to the country in which we live.

Over the next 12 months, I will address each of these 14 subjects in more in-depth commentaries, but the purpose of this blog is to detail why our intuitive feeling of anger and of a democratic system that has gone off the rails is well directed.