Understanding why there is so much money in politics

“Why would you, or anybody, spend six million dollars to get a job that pays $160,000 a year? And how could you pay it back?”

Money. Keep an eye on your finances. (Photo by Pen Waggener, Creative Commons license 2.0)

INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 13, 2016 – Why is there so much money in politics? Everyone deplores how the need for huge money discourages good people with good ideas, but no money, from entering politics.

Super PACs, wealthy donors, bundlers, corporations, unions and millions of small donors help their candidates raise money to get their word out, to buy up time before the other candidates, to fund PR firms, data miners, television ads, buses, planes and motorcades, security, dinners, and phone banks.

Why? Well, 20 years ago, I taught economics in a ritzy high school. The mother of one of my students was daughter of a former state governor and was running for U.S. Senate. She agreed that she would come and chat with my senior students after the election.

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She and her opponent had both agreed, early on and quite publicly, to limit their campaign spending to $1 million, but “of course” they couldn’t control their supporters.

Each side spent upwards of $6 million.

The mom came to school as promised, gave us a quick overview of the race, and entertained questions from the students. A brilliant young lady asked, “Why would you, or anybody, spend six million dollars to get a job that pays $160,000 a year? And how could you pay it back?”

She gave a straight answer. “There is almost no amount of money that you could spend,” she said, “that you couldn’t make back, and probably in less than six years.”

The class (and teacher) were blown away by the stark truth.

The followup question should ask why. Let’s get real: people don’t give away millions of dollars just because they believe in a philosophy. They want access, to get their own ideas heard, to get contracts, to get special treatment for their industries, West Point appointments for their kids and more. Lots more. They want tariffs on foreign competitors. They may want their products to be forced on consumers (e.g., health care, ethanol).

They give to keep things from happening, as well. They want their industries to be less regulated; they want their products to be ignored.

You can’t blame the politicians, any more than you can blame the piranha that eats your arm. They both take the bait when it is dangled in front of them. But why are we afraid of piranhas and not of bluegills? Because piranhas have teeth.

A piranha will eat you even if you raised it from when it was a small fry. That may explain why everyone who gets a position of power in D.C. seems to quickly join the Dark Side.

The problem, in other words, isn’t really the politician. It’s the power. A piranha with no power is a bluegill. It doesn’t matter so much what it does or doesn’t do. The lake lives on, either way. The difference is to the fish who live there as citizens.

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So, what is the solution? When there is so much power available, today’s situation is inevitable. We citizens live intimidated, even to the point of throwing our fellow citizens to the piranhas, e.g., http://www.irs.gov/uac/Whistleblower-Informant-Award/, so the piranhas eat someone else.

Why is there so much money in politics? The short answer is that it’s worth it.

So reduce the power of government. Things the government now does will still get done. Kids will still get educated. Airplanes will still be built. Young couples will still get mortgages. We may not put another man on the moon – but that hasn’t happened for nearly 40 years, and we’ve been OK.

Make government smaller, and people will have more money, more choices, more freedom. Make government small enough, and it won’t be able hurt us, and it won’t matter much who is in charge of it. And wouldn’t that be nice?

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