As all sentient citizens know, the Supreme Court has ruled that money is speech and corporations are people so corporations and unions may now exercise their right to free speech by spending unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns. Additionally Political Action Committees may spend unlimited amounts of money given by anonymous donors on what are called “issues.” It seems odd to me to juxtapose Freedom of Speech with guarantees of anonymity unless people who are speaking freely are ashamed of what they are saying. Such issue ads must not be coordinated with any specific individual’s campaign nor must they be honest or fair. How this lack of coordination is assured is mysterious to me. Billionaires may give unlimited amounts of money to PACs. One very rich person may therefore influence a campaign more than tens or hundreds of thousands of less affluent citizens. The 2012 campaign will be waged under these rules. As a result we may predict that more money will be spent this season than any other. It is an undeniable fact that, in over 90% of political campaigns, the individual who spends the most money wins, so we may predict that we are extremely likely to get the best Congress, Legislatures, Governors, President, and so forth that money can buy.
Given the importance of money in politics I believe that it is useful to consider who usually has the most money in our society and whether or not their special skill set should qualify them to have the dominant voice in choosing our government. Besides inheritance, the most common way to become rich, being successful in business is the usual way to accumulate a large fortune. The particular combinations of shrewdness, hard work, and luck that lead to fabulous success are quite varied as one can see from reading about the careers of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Carl Ichan, John D. Rockefeller, Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. Some of these individuals actually created something then went on to develop a business, and manage it well. Others were shrewd investors, successful high-stakes gamblers who were better traders than anyone else. Others were bankers who specialized in moving money around, making timely bets, inventing financial “instruments” to sell to investors, and sometimes betting against the success of the very instruments they were selling to others. These last types are clearly in business just to make money for themselves. Business to them is a zero sum poker game.
How good the judgment of such super rich individuals may be in fields outside their own expertise may be illustrated by reading about Steve Jobs’ attitudes toward medicine. These attitudes probably allowed a curable tumor of the pancreas to become a metastatic disease that eventually killed him. Yet, Steve Jobs could certainly have had more influence on health care legislation regarding research and patient care than I ever would, should he have shown an interest. Congressmen, legislators, governors, and even Presidents listen attentively to those who give them money. Simple sound advice from well-qualified experts doesn’t always command such strict attention.
Here are a couple of further questions to ponder. Were the folks in your college who went to business school generally the smartest people in your class? Did they show a lot of interest in improving the lives of the society in general? In my class they were not. I knew lots of pretty smart people who went to business school but the smartest people disproportionately went into the sciences. Motivation is also worth considering. After the banking collapse in 2008 the Congress held hearings in which a number of the directors of our largest financial institutions were called to testify. One congressman asked one of the directors (who had been involved in selling “securities” to clients then betting the company’s money that the securities would fail) if he thought that he should always keep his customers’ best interests in mind when advising them or selling them products. The director was struck dumb and never answered. It was clear that this was a completely foreign concept to him. Another person at the witness table finally said that of course the customers’ best interests should always be kept in mind. It is not difficult to conclude that many folks who go into high finance are doing so mostly for their own personal gain. This does not mean that they are bad people. With regard to making money they are probably amoral, not immoral. Some assuage whatever individual or collective conscience they have by affirming the economic theory of “trickle down.” This theory holds that making the rich richer will benefit the middle class and poor as well because the money from the rich will trickle down to everyone else. “Trickle” is defined in my Webster’s as, “to flow or fall by drops in a small, gentle stream.” You will notice that the idea is a small, dropwise flow, not a substantial flow, certainly not a waterfall. One does not envision the Mississippi. The theory is not “Flow down.” Trickle down works just as the verb says. The rich keep most of what they receive and the non-rich get a little. Even this is too much for some rich folks who are also greedy Calvinists or who get their economic theory from a Russian, atheist novelist. In spite of the claims of some well-known works of fiction, history shows that “trickle down” does not benefit the entire society very much.
In contrast the motivation of most of the people I knew who went into science was to discover more about how nature was organized and to educate further generations about this. It really was. Granted, a scientist, particularly some very good ones, can become quite comfortable, even make millions from patents, but they are unlikely to accumulate the vast fortunes that those who concentrate specifically on making money do. Jonas Salk, who invented the first polio vaccine, and Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins, who shared the Nobel Prize for elucidating the structure of DNA, all became famous and financially comfortable, but they did not make hundreds of millions of dollars. Philo Farnsworth, who was instrumental in the invention of television, made almost nothing because he was outmaneuvered by David Sarnoff, the president of NBC, for the marketing rights. Similarly, those who go into the social sciences or history, who know a lot about how society works, seldom accumulate vast fortunes. They contribute to society by writing books and teaching students but not by giving politicians money. Books take longer to read than the numbers and signature on a check.
Society has many components and all of them must be managed wisely. As we continuously move into the future, business in our society will involve, among many other things:
1. Education of children from K through graduate degrees
2. New discoveries by those kids
3. Engineering and manufacturing products based on these new discoveries
4. Raising capital to accomplish manufacturing and
5. Distribution of the new products by businessmen
6. All of which will be facilitated by public utilities such as roads, water, power, and law.
In our system those who accumulate the most money in the above processes are not the educators, the researchers, the engineers, or the factory workers but the bankers and businessmen. They are in the best position to “buy” politicians to make laws and regulations which will further enhance cash flow to the banks and businesses. This will not necessarily benefit any other part of the society. There are many politicians today who deny that mankind has anything to do with global warming. Upon examination, they turn out to receive large campaign donations from oil, gas, and coal companies. Politicians from tobacco states have obstructed regulation of the tobacco industry for years even though science clearly shows that tobacco use is the single greatest cause of preventable death in this country. These observations are examples of the concept of “dance with who brung ya.”
Many of the people who are accumulating wealth in our system know very little of the scientific method and creative processes leading to new discoveries or what engineering and manufacturing technologies made their businesses possible. Granted my experience is limited, but I have been hired by biotech companies to give short courses to their middle management on just what it was that their company did. These courses were at the level of what are DNA, RNA, and antibodies.
Obviously the ideal society would have a smooth integration of all six of the above functions but such smooth integration will only be facilitated by laws and regulations if politicians are not unduly beholden to those who give them money. Following the daily news will suggest to you that laws and regulations governing business and capital formation are clearly necessary both to protect the public from the rapacity of a few as well as to protect the rapacious from themselves. Even if money did not have the undue influence on politics that it now has, scientists and engineers would have to actively involve themselves in the process of educating and advising the politicians who will make the new laws; the educators will have to continuously improve our educational system and the populace will have to take seriously its obligation to be good citizens and vote for politicians who give some evidence of understanding more about the world around them than just who gave them the most money. I honestly don’t know how to make that happen in today’s world but limiting the amount of money that can be spent in political campaigns would seem to be a necessary first step. I would also say that, just because someone is very experienced in one aspect of business in our society does not imply at all that they would necessarily know best or be interested in how to manage other areas of society so as to “promote the general welfare.” This is particularly true if that businessman has never previously shown any particular interest in anything but making money for himself. Society is a complex organism. Business is only one organ system. Conservatives would probably like to think that business is most like the circulatory system, with the heart pumping life-giving blood everywhere in the organism. They also need to consider how useless the heart would be if the marrow did not continuously make new red and white cells or if the arteries become clogged. And, those investment bankers who sell customers securities that they then bet against should review the function and products of the gastrointestinal system.
This has been an “issue” ad from the Scientific Gospel Political Action Committee. Names of donors are, of course, withheld.