Sunday, January 20, 2013

"We Have Met The Enemy, And He Is Us"


Walt Kelly's famous "We have met the enemy" quote dates back to the 1950’s. The line was first uttered by "Pogo", a 50's and 60's cartoon creation of Kelly's. Pogo was before my time, but as best as I can tell it seems to me he could have been Bloom County's "Opus" the Penguin's forefather. The brilliant quote was revisited again in 1970, as it became the poster tag line for the first “Earth Day”. A few thinkers have borrowed the clever thought since then, including Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Woody Allen. But I think it is strange that we don’t hear the sentiment often enough. We have to admit, we spend a lot of time and energy hunting down culprits for problems we categorically blame others for, or at best, we partially “soft-blame” ourselves (“I was too nice and let them take advantage of me”, or “I voted for him, what a mistake.”)

Accountability is most certainly not an easy thing. And yet, great men and women believe it is the key to happiness. So why the resistance? I’m sure psychologists and sociologists have a few good theories on the subject. To keep my point short I won’t dig those up, but my bet is that it all has something to do with a vicious circle. Since we’re wired to frequently be on a blame witch-hunt, putting ourselves on the wrong side of the hunt is unacceptable.

Mainstream religions tend to teach some level of humility and repentance. That is great – if it weren’t for the fact that most faithful approach religion like they might approach spectator sports: it stirs up empathetic passions every Sunday, but less than 24 hours later our weekly descent into the dark side of the force is complete. Which makes you wonder: was it some kind of miracle that 39 men once signed a document that began with “We the people”, and it became one of the greatest documents in the history of mankind? I may be reading too much into it, but I always thought what was intended by “We the people” was fairly self-evident. Surely if the founding fathers had meant “They the people”, they would have written so.

Yet every couple of years, aspiring young American politicians find a stump, rally up a small crowd by engaging in an “us vs. them” rhetoric, and offer up a speech that invariably ends in something like this: “Let’s send a clear message to Washington, we will not tolerate their (whine, bitch, or moan of the day.)” Poor George, if the old expression “turning in his grave” were literally true, he would have drilled his way from coast to coast several times by now.

So it turns out that besides sending a politician or two from every state to Washington every couple of years, a group of guys in business suits and dark glasses board the same DC-bound flight. No, they are not security: they are the lobbyists that funded the politicians’ campaigns.

The reported expenditure in 2012 by Washington DC lobbyists was $2.5 billion, according to the Center for Responsive politics (OpenSecrets.org). That figure also happens to be slightly under the ten-year average. On a simple, linear math: during the official two-year term of congress representatives, that amounts to $5.3 billion; during the four-year term of a president, the expenditure reaches $11.3 billion; during the six-year term of senators lobbying adds up to $16.9 billion, and during a two-term president it reaches $22.6 billion. Senators are favored targets of lobbyists, given their significant influence, lesser spotlight than the president, longer terms, and more predictable reelection. Six years is also the threshold of pain for Wall Street, in terms of how long it is willing to wait for results. For perspective, using the six year total of $16.9 billion, lobbying represents 1.9% of the healthcare spending in 2011, and for the same year: 2.5% of defense, 20% of transportation, 37% of energy, 44% of justice, and 150% of interior, or commerce, or the EPA (source OMB – Office of Management and Budget.)

So here’s the trillion dollar question: is there anything about lobbying that is adding value to our quest to build a more perfect union? My answer is fairly uncomplicated (for a change): no. There are only two official reasons for lobbying in Washington: access to taxpayer funds, or access to special rights. Both of those accesses should not be unduly influenced by unelected interests. With all due respect to my senator, when $150 out of every $1,000 I make goes to Washington, his mandate on how to best spend that money should not come from the lobbyists who financed his election. The conflicts of interests are so blatant, I am left wondering how long are we going to simply stand there with a tear running down our cheek.

For every year that goes by and I do nothing about this, I certainly only have myself to blame. I am, it seems, my own worst enemy.


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