As a person with deep convictions about the life-affirming value of caffeine, it pains me to say that Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks has had a not very bright idea. It’s a well-meaning idea, and it was endorsed by a New York Times columnist, but I’m afraid the two of them are at best naive, at worst misguided in a wooly-headed sort of way.
According to Schultz, he was so disgusted by the phony budget and default carny he made a pledge that he would cease making political contributions until a long term budget deal is reached. So far, more than 100 other corporations or CEOs have accepted the pledge. Not giving money to politicians may get you into heaven, and may even get you beatified; but what it won’t do is have the effect Schultz intends, which is to leverage some ideological and political harmony in the name of practicality. With all due respect, Mr. Schultz, what country’s politics have you been observing the last three years?
Mr. Schultz made the kind of hackneyed observation that drives me completely over-the-bend meshugana, saying he is disturbed by, “the lack of cooperation and irresponsibility among elected officials as they have put partisan agendas before the people’s agenda.” He’s repeating the pundits’ shallow and tired conventional narrative that both sides are equally intransigent, guilty of equivalent levels of polarity on their respective sides. Did he really fail to notice recently when all Republican presidential candidates said during a debate they would reject a budget deal that was 10 to 1 spending cuts to revenue enhancements? Did he miss President Obama giving John Boehner “ninety-eight percent” of what he asked for? Did he miss the Paul Ryan budget plan eliminating Medicare, and cutting already obscenely low taxes on the wealthy and corporations more? Has he caught even several seconds of the Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry road shows? Several seconds are more than enough.
Joe Nocera, the Times columnist describes Schultz’s idea as one designed to, “force the country’s dysfunctional politicians to stop putting party over country and act like the leaders they are supposed to be.” Again, Schultz and Nocera must not have witnessed the congressional representatives of one of the country’s two political parties threaten to throw the country into default unless 100% of their demands were met. No small number of those representatives claimed they preferred the country default no matter what. Does it not register here to these dear souls Schultz and Nocera that ideologues, almost by definition, and certainly today’s hardcore Republican ideologues in practice, place ideology and ideological goals above all else? Expecting them to put country over party defies the essence of their very identity.
Nocera goes on to write:
In effect, Schultz thinks the country should go on strike against its politicians. “The fundamental problem,” he said, “is that the lens through which Congress approaches issues is re-election. The lifeblood of their re-election campaigns is political contributions.” Schultz wants his countrymen — big donors and small; corporations and unions — to stop making political contributions in presidential and Congressional campaigns. Simple as that. Economists like to talk about how incentives change behavior. Schultz is proposing that Americans give Washington an incentive to begin acting responsibly on their behalf. It’s a beautiful idea.
Simple as that? What so drips with dewy innocence here is the notion that corporations have been giving large sums to politicians as an expression of patriotism or for the rewarding feeling one gets from participation in American’s vibrant democracy. God, this is going to sound harsh, but here it is: They give money in order to leverage very specific policy results that benefit their very specific self-interest. The notion any of them would forego this bottom line initiative for the good of the political process is somewhere between dreamy and plain ludicrous. I would bet dollars to Krispy Kremes that 99 of those 100 corporations or CEO’s who joined the pledge not to contribute directly to politicians, this minute have entire squadrons of Ninja lobbyists assaulting members of congress as we speak.
If one has any political sympathies whatsoever, and Mr. Schultz’s are said to favor Democrats, it must be remembered that, like it or not, political contributions really are a zero sum game; if one fails to contribute to politicians who exhibit behavior one admires, or who advocate for policies one endorses and believes are beneficial to the country as a whole, then the absence of contributions to those specific politicians merely empowers their opposition. Your failure to contribute leverages no harmony or era of good vibes, but merely the electoral superiority of the politicians likelier to act, according to your own views against the best interest of the nation as you perceive it.
There’s certainly no argument that money has corrupted the American political process to such a point of distortion as to make it virtually unrecognizable. Big donors, meaning big corporations and the wealthy all but write America’s laws now.
Other nations severely curtail the length of time campaigns can advertise to a few weeks or a couple of months prior to an actual election. Likewise, limitations on advertising mean politicians do not require the exorbitant sums necessary to compete in expensive electronic media markets for months or years. But the current Supreme Court, whose recent Citizens United decision only further empowered the corporate sector’s massive influence in our political process, might as well conduct its judicial business in the headquarters of Exxon or Goldman Sachs so corporation and money cozy are they. They’re about as warmly friendly toward reform as Dick Cheney is toward the human race at large.
But the cornerstone of Supreme Court decisions making reform all but impossible is the Buckley v. Valeo decision of 1976 equating political contributions to political speech under the First Amendment. Unless that ruling is overturned, genuine political reform is all but impossible. There’s about as much chance of the current Supreme Court overturning Buckley as of me giving up coffee.