Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Wednesday, December 7, 2016

If you could make a 50/50 bet for a dollar, and the payoff was 10 dollars each year for the next four, would you take that bet? In option-speak, that’s like buying a call option for a dollar with an expected value of $20. Of course you would, and that’s exactly why the 2012 presidential campaign has been the most expensive in history.

Political ads and contributions are cheap call options on the taxpayers’ collective purse, and it won’t just be defense contractors, agribusinesses, oil and gas, utilities and pharmaceutical companies draining us through subsidies, tax breaks and taxpayer-provided services unless we fix this problem.

Wall Street is convinced it can get more out of us, and they know how to get it: by reforming Social Security. Security companies, software contractors, telecoms, hospital companies, real estate developers and law firms are all angling to get “their” pounds of our flesh, too.

It’s all a matter of maximizing shareholder value, after all.

Consider what Massey Coal did—spending $3 million to elect its very own state Supreme Court judge (in a race where total spending other than Massey was around $2 million). Once elected, that judge cast the deciding vote to reverse a $50 million judgment against Massey on a case that was already on its way to that very court.

That’s a nicely asymmetric return profile, risking $3 million and getting $50 million back.

Not all cases are that simple. For example, the majority of the state legislators who voted to support Arizona’s “show me your papers” law had gotten campaign contributions from Corrections Corp of America, the same company that wrote most of the law, and not coincidentally, has the Arizona contract to hold detainees awaiting Immigration Department disposition or deportation. I guess they thought of it as a kind of marketing plan. Pretty clever, when you think about it. State legislators are probably very grateful for contributions of even a couple thousand dollars. CCA could probably get their private meetings and/or support from a decent majority for less money than the profit from holding a couple of extra “privatized” inmates.

Once again, a single company stood to make millions or even tens of millions by making political contributions that were just a tiny fraction of the upside.

With Citizens United making anonymous unlimited direct political spending the law of the land, any company or union can affect the outcome of elections, and they won’t have to deal with the potential trouble their shareholders or customers or the public might give them if they knew who was spending.

Today’s strange crop of conservative politicians all say they want to reverse a “socialist agenda,” but that’s just good old fearmongering, and not rooted in reality. After all, the two most hated items passed by the “Pelosi” Congress were a cap-and-trade energy bill and a private health insurance mandate that follow almost to the letter proposals that came out of those famously Marxist organizations, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. In case you’ve been too busy trying to live your life and provide for your family to watch where far-right policymakers go when not on government payrolls, the Heritage Foundation and AEI are where the neocons who ginned up the plans for the Iraq war and Bush tax cuts went to collect nice salaries funded by tax deductible contributions after we voted out their political bosses.

If we were actually “going socialist”, we’d be launching a free national health service supported by general tax revenues, as they have in other democratic countries. Or we would at least pay for everyone to go to private doctors as they do in most developed economies. Of course, that might actually give us more freedom and a stronger free market economy by having insurers and health care providers compete, and by freeing entrepreneurs to strike out on their own and start new businesses. It doesn’t escape my notice that Germany has more of its citizens working for small companies than we do. Without the burden of health insurance to worry about, they are free to start businesses when many of us can’t take the risk.

The energy bill, the other big “government takeover” so hated by Tea Partiers, is another example of distinctly un-socialist action. As Newt Gingrich said in a one-hour interview with PBS way back in 2007, cap and trade is a “free enterprise” solution to the carbon emission problem modeled after the successful sulfur dioxide cap and trade system the first President Bush put in place to deal with acid rain—again, hardly the stuff of Lenin and Mao.

So let me suggest that we put every politician who claims to support free markets and cutting government “interference” to a simple test. I know that they all (and most other people in the country) find something inherently distasteful about limiting profits, except in the cases where a company has a government-enforced monopoly.

The question is, are those same “free marketeers” willing to let the free market give the private enterprise unlimited losses?

If they don’t want government dictating to business through regulations and oversight (see Rand Paul’s statements on mine safety regulations for the extreme version), then they should also let anyone damaged by a corporation or person have unlimited potential to extract compensation for their damages. In other words, every politician who claims to support free markets but wants tort reform to limit damage awards is simply lying, and using the free market banner to hide their agenda: supporting government-imposed limits to corporate liability. In the cases of mine owners, literally giving them a license to kill, if the economics favor that.

Leveraged returns, in other words. In the vernacular, “Heads, they win; tails, we lose.” Not a bit different from the Wall Street bailouts, in my mind, and certainly not consistent with the claims of every Tea Party supporter I’ve met.

The sad part of this whole equation is that the benefit of not having a single corporation or concentrated industry rip us off is so diffuse that no one can economically justify spending the big bucks it takes to counter the efforts of the profiteers.

In the 2012 presidential campaign, the numbers make it obvious. The top five contributors to the Obama campaign have ponied up an average of just over $2 million apiece. Since Obama’s policies tend to favor very wide constituencies, it’s unlikely any of those big contributors will get anywhere near $2 million in benefits from an Obama second term. On the other hand, Sheldon Adelson and the other top four Romney supporters have donated tens of millions, and the tax policies, promises to roll back regulations and future government contracts will most likely give every one of those big fish a huge return on investment, personally.

Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2012 The National Memo