Last week I listened to an episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast that featured extracts from a 2011 book by economist Robert H Frank. He uses examples from Darwinian evolution to highlight contradictions in our natural world, where individual interests and group interests are not always aligned, and draws parallels with our modern political economy.
Right! Now that I’ve got your attention…!?! ;^)
He cites Darwin’s examinations of bull elks. Their genetic imperative, like many other animals, is to take multiple female mates to maximise the chance of their genes being passed onto future generations. Bull elks compete aggressively for mates with their antlers as primary weapons. Typically, bigger antlers will make an individual elk more successful in these fights, meaning he can mate with more females. And so elks will tend to evolve with larger (and larger) antlers. But although this development works in the interests of the individual elks, does it really act in the interests of the group, the species? Larger antlers are heavier, more cumbersome, making it harder for the elk to manoeuvre in dense forest and escape predators.
I understand from some reviews that Professor Frank’s exploration of Darwin’s work is less-than-complete, but it still poses interesting challenges. How does Natural Selection cope with this inconsistency between self-interest and the interests of the wider group? In the context of the real economy, he challenges us to consider “how much is enough?”. When does the acquisition of personal wealth become detrimental to the society?
After listening to that thorny podcast, I switched to another transAtlantic favourite, This American Life, and the episode Take the money and run…for office, which only made me think that Professor Frank is right. It would seem that American democracy has evolved to favour the candidates or parties or interest groups who can raise the most money for campaigning their message, which is almost certainly going to work in their own interests. But does it really operate in the interests of the people, in the interests of democracy?
The US and its allies have waged wars in recent decades to promote democracy against tyrannical, despotic regimes, spreading freedom and democracy around the globe. But apparently the day-to-day, week-to-week practicalities of US democracy are not primarily about understanding the voice of the people, of listening to the entire constituency of citizens to perform the will of the electorate. Instead, what drives congressmen and senators is…
…a gnawing relentless voracious need for cash.
Walt Minnick was a conservative Democrat congressman, who claimed that from the very day he was elected
…I needed to raise $10-15,000 a day
…every day of the year. TAL reports that congressmen can spend 2-3 hours every day sat in offices managed by the Democratic and Republican Parties, making calls to raise political campaign funds. While they’re apparently on taxpayers’ time, they spend hours every day of every week begging for cash for their own campaigns. Walt Minnick jokes in all seriousness
…the best thing about being an ex-congressmen is my friends now return my phonecalls.
But not all congressmen are created equal. Congressional committee chairmen and members have a pecking order. The House Administration and Judiciary committees are definitely not on the ‘A’ List, whereas Financial Services, Energy & Commerce and Ways & Means committees are very interesting to all sorts of people. Just being on these plum committees can bring in up to $200,000 more than the average, according to research from the Sunlight Foundation. Chairmen of the ‘A’ List committees can bring in more than $1m. But this blessing is also a curse. The Party leadership know this, and they set targets for fundraising so those with privileged positions can help subsidise others. And God help you if you’re not meeting your targets.
This all reminded me of Glengarry Glen Ross, the salesmen taken to task by Alec Baldwin, waving the dream of “the Glengarry leads”…
First Prize is a Cadillac Eldorado… 2nd prize is a set of steak knives… 3rd prize is you’re fired.
Worse still is the more recent evolution of Super-PACs. Political Action Committees (PACs) have long been the central repositories for financial donations. But a Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case ruled that ‘Super-PACs’ need not identify themselves as the sponsors of political activities. These anonymous conglomerates can take unlimited amounts of donations from companies, individuals, or unions.
Super-PACs raise tens of millions of dollars, but “just” a few hundred thousand dollars can change the course of a close-fought congressional election. And they can do this without declaring who donated the money. According to critics of the Supreme Court ruling, the 2010 midterm congressional elections were the most expensive and least transparent in history.
All this means US politicians are spending more and more time raising money, simply to have a ‘rainy day’ war chest that they might use to respond to intervention from a Super-PAC. Individuals, companies and unions can use their wealth to further their own causes, to get access to law-makers and to influence democratic elections. But where does that leave the rest of us…?
Is this the real state of American democracy? The most advanced state of evolution in our human political systems? Where the politicians spend a sizeable amount of their time attending fundraisers, begging for donations from individuals and lobbyists, where money can buy access to politicians, where organised money can create political campaigns without disclosing their motives or even their identity, where elected politicians live in fear for their jobs if they can’t raise enough money for advertising.