Greed’s influence on policy

Someone who read Black Collar left a review asking why Congress tends to ignore the will of the people in favor of policies that enrich the upper class. Is it “simple greed” the reviewer pondered. Great question. Here’s my response:

First, thank you to everyone who read Black Collar. These positive reviews are the best motivation, and I appreciate them so much. I’ve receive a lot of reviews lately, so if I don’t answer your question on here, feel free to email me directly. But I’m going to answer this one.

Regarding whether policy choices are motivated by greed, I think that’s a question with a complex answer. Research by Martin Gilens tells us that 70% of Americans have zero influence on public policy. They are completely disenfranchised from the political system–not because they don’t vote, but because money in a much greater indicator of policy influence. So, part one of the problem is that many Americans just don’t have a voice in Washington, D.C., because they can’t afford one. How we spend our money is more important than the box we check on the ballot, although I like to think that matters, too.

Part two: A large portion of the conservative/libertarian party believes that greed is good. Ayn Rand made a strong argument that money is the essence of civility. “Blood, whips and guns–or dollars,” she wrote. Black Collar points out that money doesn’t eliminate oppression–in fact, it makes oppression easier to hide. Guns and chains would be far more honest. Yes, greed is a factor, but the politicians who follow that mantra sincerely believe in the virtue of selfishness, and that those who might slow the acquisition of money are either looters (takers by force) or moochers (takers by tears). However, maintaining such a belief requires a willful ignorance of the entire field of sociology.

Part three: Perception bias makes make it easy for wealthy decision makers in Congress to support policy choices that benefit those in their social class. It’s a choice between believing one’s personal success was earned by hard work, or believing that personal success was impacted by the advantages of family, money, connections, superior educations, stable homes, safe environments, good nutrition, looks, gender, skin color, etc. By nature, we assume we earned our positions outright. However, fact is that those who make it big tend to have some significant life advantages (see Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell), including individuals like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg (I think that’s why these two tend to tackle global issues, rather than domestic ones–the USA’s economic structure worked for them, because they were already near the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy).

Part four: Our current political structure encourages decision making that benefits big business and the super wealthy. Candidates must raise obscene amounts of capital to compete, to make sure their message is heard. The type of candidates most likely to receive the substantial donations, and thus most likely to win, are the type who are most likely to turn a blind eye to shady business practices. Until we have meaningful campaign finance reform, more specifically, publicly financed elections and some restrictions on revolving door legislators, we’ll have politicians and judges beholden to their wealthy donors.

Part five. Many Americans, politicians, and pundits, have fallen for the big lie that deregulation automatically creates competition. However, deregulation only creates competition when all competitors are equal (aka perfect competition). In a skewed marketplace, deregulation just gives more power to the dominant players. The policy choices that follow this logic always benefit the wealthy. It’s possible these policy choices are based on greed or a desire to limit competition, or just plain ignorance. Nobel-laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz explains that economic rules should be used to create competition, like rules in sports are meant to create competition. We have fouls in basketball because they keep the game competitive. We don’t let batters call the strikes to keep the game competitive. Likewise, rules and regulations often make the market more competitive. Statistically, countries with universal health care and low costs of education have more upward mobility than in the United States. Many conservatives would label these countries “socialist,” but they actually have far more upward mobility than the United States. To me, upward mobility, the ability to make more money than your parents, is the mark of functioning capitalism. When upward mobility slips away, innovation is oppressed, and society begins to look more feudalistic. This foolish logic that deregulation always creates competition is one of the main reasons why policy choices in D.C. often hurt the working class.

Combined, I think these are the reasons Congress makes policy decisions that ignore the will of the masses and generally look like “simple greed.” However, data exists to support trickle-up economics: empowering those at the bottom with higher salaries and more opportunity so they create new businesses (more competition) and spend more money. Nick Hanauer (one of Amazon’s early investors) has some great videos explaining why a strong middle class is good for everyone, including the rich. I think it starts by empowering entrepreneurship. According to a recent WSJ article, “the share of people under age 30 who own private businesses has reached a 24-year-low,” down from 10.6% in 1989 to 3.6% in 2013. It’s no coincidence that young adults are struggling with record levels of student loan debt as well as high health-care costs. For many Americans, the dollar is being used like a chain, tying them to exploitative employers and limiting their market potential. Regardless of motive, the policy decisions of the past 30 years have acted to oppress America’s middle class, severely limiting the type of entrepreneurship that creates competition, innovation, jobs, and salary increases.

Hope that answers your question. Thanks, again, for reading Black Collar.