Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Book Review: Extortion

We live in a era where many people are highly suspicious of the government and nauseated by politicians in general. People are angry, disenchanted, fed up.

Let me just say that no matter how fed up you are, it isn't enough.

In Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets Peter Schweizer lifts the lid on the garbage can known as our political process and shows the way our elected representatives extort money from the evil "special interests". Turns out that it is not special interests corrupting our otherwise noble and pure as the driven snow politicians, it is just as much (if not more) that our politicians use their power and our money to extort money from the deep pocketed special interests. If you want favorable treatment from the government, or just as often to keep something bad from happening, you better show up with your checkbook when Congress or the President calls.

This is an incomplete list of the way our "public servants" enrich themselves with the power they have granted themselves detailed in Extortion.

- Pitting competing interest groups against one another with less than subtle threats to bleed both sides dry.
- Using their influence to get jobs for relatives or the more direct route of hiring family as "consultants" and campaign staff, even if they run unopposed.
- Funneling excess contributions to other members of Congress to buy their support.
- "Loaning" their campaign money and paying themselves back with double digit interest from campaign funds.
- Creating insanely complicated laws that only the people who wrote them understand and then leaving the government for private sector lobbying or consulting jobs interpreting the insanely complex laws they wrote. (I work in an industry that is so complex and convoluted that many companies are probably out of compliance and don't even know it because no one really understands the rules)
- Using PAC funds for non-itemized expenditures on expensive hotels, meals, golf outings, sporting events, etc.

Oh yeah, all of this is legal. It is pretty convenient to be able to write the very laws that govern your behavior. It is kind of like giving car thieves the keys to every car in America and then being surprised when they steal even more cars.

There is a reason that even during the worst of the recession we are still in, Washington D.C. seemed immune. The malls were full and driveways sported brand new cars. The suburbs surrounding D.C. are some of the most affluent in the country thanks to this system of extortion, bribery and influence peddling. No surprise that these folks tend to support the people who will keep the money flowing to Washington.

What is really irritating is that for all of their pious bleating about how much they empathize with the little guy, many Democrats in Congress lead unimaginably lavish lifestyles funded by the same "special interest groups" that they rail against from the floor of the House and Senate. They go to the best golf resorts, eat at the finest restaurants and travel in the most luxurious style while bemoaning the plight of the poor.

Schweizer proposes a number of rules based fixes. Most make sense but I think he misses the reality that Congress creating laws to regulate themselves is license to create loopholes to keep the money flowing. The only way to fix this is to take away the checkbook. When the government has trillions to spend, it is easy for everyone to get a piece of the extortion racket. To kill the beast  we need to starve the beast. Take away the ability to spend so much and these shysters will find different rackets.

If everyone knows this, or at least suspects it, why do we tolerate it? Well the most successful of our public servants do a great job of building a mythos around themselves. There is a reason that Congress is so universally reviled when people are polled and yet we keep electing the same people over and over. We like our Congressmen and Senators, it is all the rest of those rascals that we hate! Between the myth of being on "our side" and bribing voters with their own money, what Schweizer calls the Permanent Political Class has created an endless stream of income for themselves. People who care about the long term future of this country rather than being concerned with which realty show is on and how much loot they can get from the government need to read this book. It is stomach churning but ignorance and apathy means more of the same until we either go bankrupt or wind up in a new civil war.

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