Thursday, October 08, 2009

"It's the Retirement, Stupid"

Edit: Added some inexplicably missing links.

There's an excellent exchange between "Mike the Biologist" and digby going on about political corruption.

First, Mike:
I think Krugman, in an otherwise excellent column, misstates the motivations behind the 'centrist' Democrats opposition to the public option for healthcare:
Yes, some of the balking senators receive large campaign contributions from the medical-industrial complex -- but who in politics doesn't? If I had to guess, I'd say that what's really going on is that relatively conservative Democrats still cling to the old dream of becoming kingmakers, of recreating the bipartisan center that used to run America.

I think he's right in that it's not about the campaign contributions. If their reluctance to support a public option were based solely on the electoral calculus of campaign donations versus popular support--that is, votes--the votes win hands down. Any Democratic senator in a swing state who needs independent and Republican votes can't afford to piss off the ~50% of Republicans and ~70% of independents who support a public option. To the extent that an Evan Bayh is supported by independents and Republicans, does he really think that these crossover voters are the ones who oppose a public option? (Actually, Bayh just might think so, since he's dumber than a fucking sack of hammers). So, if this is simple electoral politics, the obvious move is to screw your donors (of course, we are talking about 'new Democrats' who are the most inept politicians in recorded history, so who knows?).

So, Mad Biologist, how is this about money? It's simple: it's about life after politics. One of the dirty secrets about many, if not most, congressmen and senators is that they like Washington, D.C., rhetoric notwithstanding. They want to stay in town after they leave (or lose) office. Once you've tasted the Capital of the Free World, do you really want to go back to Pierre, South Dakota? (Tom Daschle comes to mind...). It's funny how many politicians, having made a career out of bashing War-Shing-Tun, don'

I can't blame them: I moved to Boston, and would be very happy to stay here. Places do grow on you. The problem comes, for politicians, when they have to find a job. For an ex-politician, there aren't that many 'straight paths' to getting your next job: lobbyist and corporate board member are the easiest and the most lucrative.

But if you get a reputation as someone who opposes large business interests, what chance do you have of getting either of these types of jobs? Sometimes, the quid pro quo is very crude and direct (e.g., Billy Tauzin), but the Village's political culture makes it clear what is acceptable. One should not be 'populist', or, heaven forbid, liberal.

The narcissistic motivation is far more subtle. Many ex-politicians are invited to join think tanks or, at least, be participants on panels and round tables (which often pay a decent stipend for 'marquee' names, such as an ex-senator). This allows them to, once again, for a brief, shining moment, walk into a room and have everyone treat them as a Very Important Person. And you get to blather on about policy without having to the heavy lifting of politics and politicking. Yet if you're tagged as the 'wrong sort', you won't get these perks either.

So, I think we're missing the big picture on corruption: it's the retirement, stupid.

Here's digby:

Dick Gephardt as a former majority leader with more than 20 years under his belt makes 80% of his highest salary which was about $195,000 in pension. Plus a 401k, social security and the congressional health care system. They were given these generous benefits for a reason:

S.Rept. 79-1400 (May 31, 1946) stated that a retirement plan for

"would contribute to independence of thought and action, [be] an
inducement for retirement for those of retiring age or with other
infirmities, [and] bring into the legislative service a larger number of
younger Members with fresh energy and new viewpoints concerning the
economic, social, and political problems of the Nation".

Yeah, that worked out.

And apparently that and everything that's come since is such a pittance that a man just has no choice but to whore himself out to Goldman Sachs.

I agree with Mike, but I think it's more than money. It's about staying in the game, being a player. And in American culture, being a real player means being paid huge sums of money. How can anyone possibly be respected otherwise?

It's the culture of power in general in this country that creates these incentives. And I'm still not sure what to do about it except pick up a pitchfork and get busy.
I don't think either are wrong, but I think Mike actually addressed digby's point when talking about the "Very Important Person" angle. There are two things that drive people to Washington: money and power. Power, of the two, is actually the least objectionable, since anybody who wants to make a positive difference needs to recognize that they need to gain the power to do so.

But once you get power, you don't want to give it up, especially if you believe that you're actually "doing good things". (A lot of these guys do, brainwashed as they are by lobbyists 24/7.) So, as Mike said, you start seeking out ways of staying in Washington, where the power is. Yes, there's also money involved, but to a great extent money is power, so there's no incompatibility there, and I suspect that most of them would choose more power over more money in a heartbeat. They already did; the private sector is more lucrative.

This is an old, old problem. It's the one that brought down Japan from its heights of the 1970s and 1980s and is still plaguing them today. It is at the heart of small-scale third-world corruption. It's also why you can't pay politicians a pittance, because the corruption would only get worse.

And, honestly, outside of more progressive and liberal "institutes" and whatnot to soak these guys up, the solution is difficult to foresee. As long as there are lobbyists and corporate board members, politicans will want to become them.

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