In a democracy, everyone is free to join the argument, or so it is said in civic mythology. In the modern democracy that has evolved, that claim is nearly meaningless. During the last generation, a "new politics" has enveloped government that guarantees the exclusion of most Americans from the debate -- the expensive politics of facts and information.
A major industry has grown up in Washington around what might be called "democracy for hire" -- business firms and outposts of sponsored scholars devoted to concocting facts and opinions and expert analysis, then aiming them at the government. That is the principal function of all those enterprises along Washington's main boulevards like K Street -- the public-relations agencies, the direct-mail companies and opinion-polling firms. All these work in concert with the infrastructure of think tanks, tax-exempt foundations and other centers that churn out reams of policy ideas for the political debate. Most are financed by corporate interests and wealthy benefactors. The work of lobbyists and lawyers involves delivering the material to the appropriate legislators and administrators.
Only those who have accumulated lots of money are free to play in this version of democracy. Only those with a strong, immediate financial stake in the political outcomes can afford to invest this kind of money in manipulating the governing decisions. Most Americans have neither the personal ability nor the wherewithal to compete on this field.
The contours of this barrier are embedded in the very texture of everyday political debate itself. Citizens have been incapacitated, quite literally, because they do not speak the language. Modern methodologies of persuasion have created a new hierarchy of influence over government decisions -- a new way in which organized money dominates the action while the unorganized voices of citizens are inhibited from speaking. A lonely congressman, trying to represent the larger public interest, finds himself arrayed against an army of authorities -- working for the other side.
Beyond the fact of unequal resources, however, lies a more troubling proposition: that democracy is now held captive by the mystique of "rational" policymaking, narrow assumptions about what constitutes legitimate political evidence. It is a barrier of privilege because it effectively discounts authentic political expressions from citizens and elevates the biases and opinions of the elites.
This mystique, not surprisingly, is embraced and exalted by well-educated citizens of most every persuasion, the people who are equipped with professional skills and expertise, including the dedicated reformers who attempt to speak for the larger public. After all, it is the basis for their own primacy in political action. Yet the premise of rationality, as the evidence demonstrates, is deeply flawed and routinely biased in its applications.
For those who are active every day in the conventional politics of governing, this proposition may not be so easy to grasp. Indeed, it will seem quite threatening to some of them, for it challenges their own deeply held beliefs about how politics is supposed to work and puts in question the meaning of their own political labors. Ordinary citizens, those who are distant from power, will have much less difficulty seeing the truth of the argument -- that information-driven politics has become a convenient reason to ignore them.
Jack Bonner, an intense young denizen of K Street, has the squirrelly enthusiasm of a salesman who can't stop talking about his product because he truly believes in it. What Bonner's firm sells is democracy, not the abstract version found in textbooks, but the living, breathing kind that occurs when people call up a senator and tell him how to vote. Bonner & Associates packages democratic expression and sells it to corporate clients -- drug manufacturers and the cosmetic industry, insurance companies and cigarette makers and the major banks.
Jack Bonner's firm is an exotic but relatively small example of the vast information industry that now surrounds the legislative debate and government in general. You want facts to support the industry's lobbying claims? It pumps out facts. You want expert opinions from scholars? It has those in abundance from the think tanks corporate contributors underwrite. You want opinion polls? It hires polling firms to produce them. You want people -- live voters who support the industry position? Jack Bonner delivers them.
When the Senate was debating the new clean-air legislation in 1990, certain wavering senators received pleas from the grassroots on the question of controlling automobile pollution. The Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Mahoning Valley wrote to Senator John Glenn of Ohio. Sam Nunn of Georgia heard from the Georgia Baptist Convention and its 1.2 million members. The Easter Seal Society of South Dakota lobbied Senator Thomas A. Daschle. The Delaware Paralyzed Veterans Association contacted Senator William V. Roth, Jr.
These groups and some others declared their opposition to the pending clean-air amendment that would compel the auto industry to improve the average fuel efficiency of its cars substantially. The measure would both conserve energy and reduce the carbon-dioxide pollution that is the main source of global wanning. These citizen organizations were persuaded to take a stand by Bonner & Associates, which informed them, consistent with the auto industry's political propaganda, that tougher fuel standards would make it impossible to manufacture any vehicles larger than a Ford Escort or a Honda Civic.
Vans and station wagons, small trucks and high-speed police cruisers, they were told, would cease to exist. The National Sheriffs Association was aroused by the thought of chasing criminals in a Honda Civic. The Nebraska Farm Bureau said rural America would be "devastated" if farmers tried to pull a trailer loaded with livestock or hay with a Ford Escort.
For twenty years, whenever the government has attempted to improve auto safety or environmental protection through new regulation, the auto industry has always made similar groans -- satisfying tougher standards would be impossible without dire social and economic consequences. The industry warnings have always proved to be false, but the innocent citizens recruited to speak for Detroit probably didn't know this history.
Jack Bonner was thrilled by their expressions of alarm and so was the auto industry that paid him for them. Bonner's fee, which he coyly described as somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million, was for scouring six states for potential grassroots voices, coaching them on the "facts" of the issue, paying for the phone calls and plane fares to Washington and hiring the hall for a joint press conference.
"On the clean-air bill, we bring to the table a third party -- 'white hat' groups who have no financial interest," Bonner explained. "It's not the auto industry trying to protect its financial stake. Now it's senior citizens worried about getting out of small cars with walkers. Easter Seal, Multiple Sclerosis -- a lot of these people have braces, wheelchairs, walkers. It's farm groups worrying about small trucks. It's people who need station wagons to drive kids to Little League games. These are groups with political juice and they're white hot."
In the textbook version of democracy, this activity is indistinguishable from any other form of democratic expression. In actuality, earnest citizens are being skillfully manipulated by powerful interests -- using "facts" that are debatable at best -- in a context designed to serve narrow corporate lobbying strategies, not free debate. Bonner & Associates does not start by looking for citizens whose self-interest might put them on the auto industry's side. It starts with a list of the senators whose votes the auto industry needs. Then the firm forages among those senators' constituents for willing bodies.
"We sit down with the lobbyists and ask: How much heat do you want on these guys?" Bonner explained. "Do you want ten local groups or two hundred groups? Do you want one hundred phone calls from constituents or a thousand phone calls?"
Bonner's K Street office has a "boiler room" with three hundred phone lines and a sophisticated computer system, resembling the phone banks employed in election campaigns. Articulate young people sit in little booths every day, dialing around America on a variety of public issues, searching for "white hat" citizens who can be persuaded to endorse the political objectives of Mobil Oil, Dow Chemical, Citicorp, Ohio Bell, Miller Brewing, U.S. Tobacco, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and dozens of other clients.
This kind of political recruiting is expensive but not difficult. Many of the citizens are no doubt flattered to be asked, since ordinary Americans are seldom invited to participate in a personal way in the larger debates, even by the national civic organizations that presumably represent them. In a twisted sense, Jack Bonner does what political parties used to do for citizens -- he educates and agitates and mobilizes.
Since members of Congress are not naive, they understand the artificiality well enough. They know that many of the 400 million pieces of mail they receive each year are contrived by interested parties of one kind or another. Heating authentic voices from the grassroots, however, provides them with a valuable defense on controversial votes, especially when a senator intends to vote with the auto-industry lobbyists and against cleaner air. Public opinion, as every senator knows, is with the air.
"Obviously," Bonner said, "you target senators inclined to go your way but who need some additional cover. They need to be able to say they've heard from people back home on this issue. Or we target people who are genuinely undecided. It's not a good use of money to target senators who are flat opposed or who are already for you."
Corporate grassroots politics, as Bonner likes to emphasize, is really borrowed from the opposition -- the citizen "public interest" organizations, especially in the environmental movement, who first perfected the technique of generating emotional public responses with factual accusations. "Politics turns on emotion," Bonner said. "That's why industry has lost in the past and that's why we win. We bring emotion to the table."
The democratic discourse is now dominated by such transactions -- information and opinion and scholarly expertise produced by and for the self-interested sponsors. Imagine Bonner's technique multiplied and elaborated in different ways across hundreds of public issues and you may begin to envision the girth of this industry. Some firms produce artfully designed opinion polls, more or less guaranteed to yield results that suggest public support for the industry's position. Some firms specialize in coalition building -- assembling dozens or hundreds of civic organizations and interest groups in behalf of lobbying goals.
This is democracy and it costs a fortune. Democracy-for-hire smothers the contemporary political debates and, while it does not always prevail, relatively few Americans have the resources to hire a voice for themselves. David Cohen of the Advocacy Institute, which trains citizens in how to lobby for their causes, recognizes a kind of class system emerging in the political process itself. "We are moving to a system," he said, "where there are two different realms of citizens -- a society in which those with the resources are going to have the ability to dominate the debate and outcomes while others are not going to be able to draw on the tools of persuasion." If democratic expression is reduced to a question of money, then those with money will always have more.
In previous times, reformers wrote devastating critiques about the "capture" of government regulatory agencies by the industries they were supposed to regulate. The Civil Aeronautics Board became the puppet of the airlines. The Bureau of Mines was owned by the coal industry. The Federal Communications Commission belonged to the broadcasters. The occasional exposés sometimes produced reforms though the basic problem endured.
Now, however, it is not an exaggeration to say that democracy itself has been "captured." The forms of expression, the premises and very language of debate, not to mention the rotating cadres of experts and managers, are now owned in large measure by relatively few interests, much the way that powerful industries came to own regulatory agencies. Democracy is held captive, not just by money, but by ideas -- the ideas that money buys.
Some citizens have discovered that the best way to avoid being overwhelmed by the "shadow government" of K Street is to proceed stealthfully in the legislative arena -- to launch sneak attacks before the information industry notices.
Year after year through the 1980s, Representative Byron Dorgan of North Dakota pursued this lonely strategy, as he tried to get Congress to curb the profligate buildup of junk bonds and corporate debt. As a former state tax commissioner, Dorgan understood that the Wall Street takeover deals were cannibalizing productive companies and leaving U.S. corporations dangerously overleveraged. Junk bonds didn't become a visible political issue until they started collapsing in the late 1980s, threatening the solvency of S&Ls, banks and insurance companies. But Dorgan could have explained it to people years before.
"I've been giving Wall Street fits," he said, "and they're furious with me and my constituents don't quite understand why I care because we're not exposed to hostile takeovers and stuff like that in North Dakota. But, starting in 1982 when I saw what was happening on Wall Street, I just got much more interested in junk bonds and mergers."
Dorgan set out to eliminate the federal tax deductions for the interest paid on junk bonds -- the implicit federal subsidy for the deals that made the explosive buildup of corporate debt possible. If these tax breaks could be removed or scaled back, Wall Street would find fewer opportunities for raiding companies and breaking them up or leaving them mired in debt.
But the congressman did not launch a noisy campaign to alert the public to the threat posed by junk bonds. Nor did he push the Ways and Means Committee on which he serves to take up the matter directly. He did not make speeches or call press conferences. Dorgan knew all those would be futile -- and would simply alert the opposition to his intentions.
Instead, Representative Dorgan practiced the kind of guerrilla politics that is sometimes possible in the parliamentary confusions of Congress. He literally tried to sneak his amendments into tax measures before the other side found out about them. These were like midnight forays against the opposing army of lobbyists and financial experts (and sometimes even occurred late at night when legislators were weary and the army was asleep). Sometimes, he even succeeded.
Byron Dorgan's personal campaign against junk bonds illustrates how much the legislative process has been distorted by the presence of the K Street industry. Indeed, though he was representing a potentially popular cause, Dorgan's approach was the reverse image of Bonner & Associates, which, though representing industrial clients, went to the "grassroots" in search of popular support. Dorgan's effort is public-spirited but secretive. Bonner's is flamboyantly "democratic" but driven by narrow special-interest objectives.
The flourishing of junk bonds posed an issue of government tax policy with profound economic implications and ought to have aroused a great political debate during the 1980s. Yet there was no debate. Dorgan understood there was nothing to be gained by provoking a democratic dialogue on the subject.
"If you have a controversial idea in this town," Dorgan explained, "the last thing you want to do is raise it up the flagpole where everybody can see it. It's not difficult now for a business to launch thousands of pieces of mail on Capitol Hill and that scares off everyone."
Dorgan chose as his point of attack the gargantuan budget reconciliation measures that move through Congress each year late in the session and are loaded down with hundreds, even thousands of legislative riders. The confusion and complexity of these measures gives an alert legislator the chance to sneak all kinds of things into law without arousing the enemy.
"In reconciliation," he explains, "you have a bill that's ninety-six pages long and with 140 different tax changes which are all little pockmarks on the tax code. If my provision is number eighty-nine on the list and it's not very clearly described, it's likely you can get it passed with about seven and a half seconds of discussion."
In 1987, Dorgan scored in this manner by attaching an amendment that created a 50 percent excise tax on the so-called "greenmail" deals in which a corporate raider is bought off by the corporation under attack. The tax would take the profit out of "greenmail" and save millions for stockholders and targeted companies. Dorgan's amendment was accepted without debate -- before the lawyers and lobbyists from Wall Street brokerages awoke to the threat.
If they had known, the lobbyists could have buried Dorgan in elaborate, authoritative argumentation ostensibly proving that his amendment would unhinge the financial system and destroy jobs. Members would have been buried in mail from protesting clients and constituents. Nor would any lobbyist need remind the politicians that both political parties depended heavily upon the generosity of the corporate raiders for campaign money. During the 1988 election cycle, 240 of the leading dealmakers in leveraged buyouts contributed $3.5 million to Republican and Democratic candidates.
Congressman Dorgan struck again in the 1989 reconciliation bill with an amendment restricting the so-called "payment-in-kind" junk bonds -- a form of discounted debt paper in which the lenders are not paid any actual interest yet the borrowing corporations can still claim a federal tax deduction for making interest payments. The massive takeover deal engineered for RJR Nabisco involved $9 billion in these so-called PIK bonds and might not have gone forward without the hidden and illogical federal tax subsidy.
Salomon Brothers, Morgan Stanley and Drexel Burnham (before it became defunct) all came after Dorgan, but since it was too late to stop the measure, they turned their attention on the Treasury Department where the new tax law would be interpreted in new regulations. "They're trying to screw me at the office of Tax Policy," Dorgan said.
That same tear, Dorgan staged another successful ambush this time on the House floor in the savings and loan bailout legislation. His amendment prohibited the troubled S&Ls from investing in junk bonds. "Had I proposed that in committee a year and a half earlier, I'd never have gotten anywhere," he said. "The committee would never have scheduled hearings, never would have reported it. It would have been swatted away like an annoying fly. On the House floor, it carried by thirty votes -- just because by now it's impossible to say you're voting for junk bonds."
In broad daylight, Dorgan's argument was a winner, but that is not where most matters get settled. The complex and necessarily drawn-out processes of legislative decision making are dominated by what Dorgan calls "the shadow government" -- the elaborate mechanisms of persuasion that surround most issues.
"All of us who work here are frustrated by the shadow government," the congressman said. "The way attorneys do business in this town is by finding an issue and then going out and recruiting a coalition for it so maybe forty businesses will feed his resources. They write op-ed pieces, they lobby Congress, they write to stockholders and generate a blizzard of computer mail."
Byron Dorgan draws a grim summary of the consequences: "Ideas are the enemy of progress here. At least to some extent, that's true."
While industry and finance generally had their way in the politics of the 1980s, on one important issue they were devastated -- the Superfund legislation enacted in 1986. Among the outrages of the Reagan years, nothing aroused public opinion more effectively than the scary stories of these man-made toxic swamps and their threat to human life and the environment. Popular anger was aggravated further by the revelations of scandalous industry fixes at the Environmental Protection Agency. With citizens fully aroused, Congress was enabled to pass a very tough measure that assigns the cleanup costs where they rightfully belong, not to the general taxpayers, but to the specific companies that created the mess. The discredited Reagan White House was in no position to resist. Popular opinion clearly won the day.
In the months after its defeat, industry did not sulk aimlessly but instead began to plan for the long-term counterattack. By mid-1987, it had created a Coalition on Superfund, a group that would sponsor authoritative analyses on how the Superfund law was working and perhaps recommend "improvements." Major environmental organizations would be invited to join the project, but the founding members were the leading culprits in hazardous-waste pollution -- General Electric, Dow, Du Pont, Union Carbide, Monsanto, AT&T and others. They were joined by major insurance companies that were also potentially liable for huge losses -- Aetna, Cigna, Crum & Forster, Hartford and others.
The Superfund Coalition illustrates a sophisticated form of political planning that might be called deep lobbying. It is another dimension of mock democracy -- a system that has all the trappings of free and open political discourse but is shaped and guided at a very deep level by the resources of the most powerful interests. The Superfund Coalition is more representative because it demonstrates the strategic skills of the corporate interests and the depth of their sophistication and patience as well as the depth of their wallets.
Other participants come and go in the political debate, especially unorganized citizens, who cannot always afford continuous involvement. They are temporarily aroused by an issue, see reforms enacted and then move on to other concerns. But the corporations do not go away from the legislative debate, even in the off-seasons. By their nature, the people and institutions with large amounts of money at stake are always at the table, fighting over the same points year after year. It is their business to be there. Their profits depend on the outcomes.
If they lose in 1986, the companies begin immediately to prepare the ground for the next fight in 1991 or 1992. The purpose of the Superfund Coalition was to target public opinion in the distant future -- five or six years hence when the Superfund legislation would be up for renewal.
The companies' shared objective, according to an organizing memo prepared by Charls E. Walker Associates, the corporate lobbying firm, was to create "an equitable system of allocating costs" for the cleanup. In simple English, they wanted to escape the onerous financial burdens that Superfund imposed. To achieve this, the coalition members understood that they would have to convince the uninformed that the law was not working. "The nature of changes will depend on the emotional climate at the time of reauthorization and public perception of problems with the existing law."
Given the public's skepticism of industry claims, this could not be accomplished by public-relations hacks. The corporations would have to finance high-quality research and concentrate on "the building of key allies in industry, Congress, the administration, academia, think tanks, the media and select environmentalists." The initial budget was set at $840,000 a year -- a lot of money for political "research" but a pittance compared to the billions the companies might save by changing the law.
To develop the Superfund Coalition, Charls Walker's firm, which specializes in tax issues, formed a joint venture with another consulting firm whose specialty is environmental issues, William D. Ruckelshaus Associates. Ruckelshaus had served twice as EPA administrator, first under Richard Nixon and again when President Reagan called him back in 1983 to restore EPA's tarnished reputation following scandals of nonenforcement. Recently returned to private life, Ruckelshaus assigned the Superfund project to F. Henry Habicht II, who himself had recently resigned as assistant attorney general in the Justice Department for environmental enforcement.
The corporate coalition sought out participation by "select environmentalists" (the planning memos called this "outreach") and chose the Conservation Foundation headed by William K. Reilly to undertake the large research project that the companies wished to fund. Other groups were invited to take part too -- the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Audubon Society -- but they didn't like the smell of what was unfolding. They denounced the coalition as a scheme to undo the new Superfund law even before it had a chance to work.
Once the industry coalition became controversial, its sponsors decided to retreat a bit from such high visibility. "I thought what we ought to do was shift management of the study to the Conservation Foundation and let them run it and throw in some EPA money," Ruckelshaus said. "If the study was funded by industry, the results would be suspect."
EPA cooperated in this strategy, despite some congressional complaints, and in 1988 EPA Administrator Lee Thomas contracted with Reilly's organization for a $2.5 million study of the Superfund law. The taxpayers were now picking up the tab for research the polluters had originally envisioned as their political counterattack. The Conservation Foundation said it would deputize a "policy dialogue panel," including the interested industries and environmentalists, to help steer the project to the right questions.
The Superfund law, it is true, wasn't working -- partly because the affected corporations were stubbornly resisting their financial liabilities and partly because EPA was itself quite slothful, cleaning up only a handful of hazardous sites each year from the backlog of thousands. Now, the two main delinquents -- EPA and the corporations -- were teaming up to ask what the problem was.
The larger point is that an informal alliance was being formed by two important players -- government and business -- to massage a subject several years before it would become a visible political debate. There was nothing illegitimate about this. After all, it was only research. But the process that defines the scope of the public problem is often where the terms of the solution are predetermined. That is the purpose of deep lobbying -- to draw boundaries around the public argument.
The political alignments first established by the Superfund Coalition proved to be quite productive for the corporate sponsors, regardless of what happened in Congress. William K. Reilly left the Conservation Foundation before the research was completed because in 1989 he became the new EPA administrator himself. He was appointed by George Bush on the strong personal recommendation of William Ruckelshaus, who by then had become CEO of Browning-Ferris Industries, one of the largest companies in the waste-disposal sector.
Henry Habicht, who had managed the industry's Superfund Coalition for the Ruckelshaus firm, also went to EPA, as the deputy administrator, Reilly's second-in-command and, by many accounts, the man who managed the agency day by day. Lee Thomas retired to private life in Atlanta where his consulting firm was awarded a research contract on Superfund questions from -- guess who -- the Superfund Coalition.
None of this influential back scratching guaranteed, of course, that General Electric, Dow Chemical and the other corporations would ultimately get their way, but it prepared the ground for political battle on their terms. As an exercise in deep lobbying, their craftsmanship was to be admired as a nifty feat of triangulation. Three EPA administrators, past and present, as well as important environmental groups were recruited to hold hands with corporate America in the high-minded task of making Superfund into a better law.
By the fall of 1991, the polluters were beginning to get the kind of headlines they had hoped for when they created the Superfund Coalition four years earlier. Various authorities were being quoted on how flawed and wasteful the Superfund law was. And some of these experts worked for the very same companies lobbying to escape their financial obligations. At the top of the front page of The New York Times, there was this news:
Experts Question Staggering Costs of Toxic Cleanups
A NEW VIEW OF THE PERILS
Most Health Dangers Could Be Eliminated for a Fraction of Billions Now Estimated
If anyone is an authority on how modern democracy works, it is Tommy Boggs, the son of a former Democratic majority leader, a good friend and fundraiser for many members of Congress and one of Washington's premier corporate lobbyists. In an interview with the National Journal, Boggs explained how the system has changed:
"In the old days, if you wanted a levee in Louisiana, you voted for a price support program for potatoes in Maine. Nobody knew what was going on. Now, all of a sudden, there's this tremendous need for a public rationale for every action these guys take."
As lobbyists will tirelessly explain, their basic function in politics is to provide information, fact-filled arguments that provide what Boggs called a "public rationale" for the governing decisions. Many cynical citizens automatically reject that bland explanation as evasion, a self-serving cover for the black bags stuffed with cash. Tommy Boggs and his peers, it is true, do handle lots of money for election campaigns and they perform other ingratiating tasks for politicians unrelated to information gathering. Nevertheless, what the lobbyists say about their role is essentially correct.
Information, not dirty money, is the vital core of the contemporary governing process. This simple truth about the system is difficult for many people to accept, especially middle-class reformers, because it raises an unsettling paradox about the nature of democracy and what exactly has gone wrong with it. "Information" that leads to "rational" choices is supposed to be a virtuous commodity in the political culture. Democracy, it is presumed, can never get too much of it. After all, the lobbyists who inundate politicians with facts are only doing what ordinary citizens, including the reformers, can do themselves.
The reality is that information-driven politics, by its nature, cannot produce a satisfying democracy because it inevitably fosters its own hierarchy of influence, based on class and money. Lawyers or economists or others who are highly trained become, in a sense, supracitizens whose voices are louder because they speak the expert language of debate. Ordinary citizens who lack the resources or a strong personal financial incentive are priced out of the argument -- and that means most citizens. The playing field of democracy tips toward those few who have the money to acquire the information and a compelling economic motivation to purchase influence over political decisions.
Many Americans perhaps think this is how the governing system is supposed to work -- directed and dominated by an elite few. Many have come to accept the imbalance as inevitable and normal. But it is a political system of privilege and inequality, a rank ordering that assigns most citizens to inferior status. If fact-filled arguments and expensive expertise are the only route to influencing government decisions, then by definition most citizens will have no access. This is the functional reality. It cannot fairly be called democracy.
The origins of information-driven politics are, ironically, traceable to progressive reform as much as to large corporations or wealth. Middle-class and liberal-minded reformers, trying to free government decisions from the crude embrace of the powerful, emphasized a politics based on facts and analysis as their goal. They assumed that forcing "substance" into the political debate, supported by disinterested policy analysis, would help overcome the natural advantages of wealth and entrenched power. But information is never neutral and, in time, every interest recognized the usefulness of buying or producing its own facts.
The modern starting point was World War II and the economic planning that developed under Franklin Roosevelt. But the faith in rational, supposedly objective public policy really originated with the good-government reformers in the Progressive movement early in the century, middle-class professionals and managers themselves. In a complex modern society, they believed, government was corrupt and wasteful because it did not employ the unsentimental decision-making techniques of business -- rigorous economic and scientific analysis done by professionals. In many respects, the Progressives tried to shield the governing decisions from what they regarded as the raw and ignorant passions of the public at large.
The liberal intellectuals who came of age in the New Deal institutionalized the idea more substantially. The Full Employment Act of 1946, a milestone for its liberal political goals, also codified the technical methodologies on which the government would manage the economy. The Council of Economic Advisors was created to assist the president with scholarly advice, an approach copied subsequently across many other fields of public policy.
The energetic reform movements launched by Ralph Nader and others in the 1960s -- and new information technologies like computers -- gave new relevance and momentum to the idea of rational policy analysis. Why should an issue be decided by a few old bulls in the back room when, in the media age, everyone could have facts and opinions on the matter? The internal democratization of Congress -- and the ventilation of Executive Branch agencies -- created new markets for factual argument to justify decisions, augmented by the news media's unquenchable thirst for information. Instead of following the leader, members of Congress would be free to make up their own minds, and they needed their own facts.
Greed, malice and other crass motives did not exactly disappear from politics, but the spirit of reform now demanded more respectable "public rationales" for agency decisions or how a politician would cast his vote. Chuck Fishman, a Democratic lobbyist, described the new world that faced agents of political influence: "It used to be, if you had access, that was enough. Then there came a time when you had to have substance too. You couldn't just say: 'Do me a favor, blow these guys away.' The change came because publicity was too much of a threat, the risk of exposure by the media or public-interest groups. But the substance doesn't do diddly-squat if you don't also have access."
The risks facing politicians and interests were raised significantly by the public-interest critiques of reformers like Ralph Nader and the environmental organizations. Their exposés repeatedly stung the political system by revealing the irrational basis for many government policies -- decisions that had been driven by raw power and secretive influence.
The rise of "public-interest" groups, organized by Nader and others, promised to provide permanent watchdogs for citizens at large. Further, their legislative lobbying spawned a long list of democratizing reforms -- opening up closed meetings and private files, requiring public hearings at various stages of the decision process, forcing federal agencies to explain in detail why they had made certain decisions and what the economic or environmental consequences would likely be. Facts, not influence, would be the new talisman of politics.
The democratic illusion did not last. For a brief moment in the early 1970s, the reformers held the field, but they were swept away as soon as the monied interests figured out the new language of politics and learned to play by the new rules. In 1970, only a handful of the Fortune 500 companies had public-affairs offices in Washington. Ten years later, more than 80 percent did. In the same period, not coincidentally, business political-action committees displaced labor as the largest source of campaign money. In 1974, labor unions accounted for half of the PAC money; by 1980, they accounted for less than one fourth.
Business simultaneously proceeded to finance a counterrevolution of ideas that would overwhelm the voices of vigilant citizens. The American Enterprise Institute, once a cranky little conservative backwater, became a primary source of Washington opinion -- the intellectual fodder that shapes the thoughts and reflexes of both politicians and the media. By 1980, AEI's budget had multiplied tenfold and it acquired the patina of disinterested scholarship.
Meanwhile, AEI's sponsoring patrons include the largest banks and corporations in America: AT&T, $125,000; Chase Manhattan Bank, $171,000; Chevron, $95,000; Citicorp, $100,000; Exxon, $130,000; General Electric, $65,000; General Motors, $100,000; Procter & Gamble, $165,000, and so on. What do these companies get each year for their money? One need not infer that AEI scholars have been corrupted in their thinking by this corporate money. But a reasonable inference is that major business enterprises will not pay large sums of money, year after year, to people whose "ideas" cannot be useful to corporate political interests.
The money was spread around widely. Murray Weidenbaum, a conservative economist at Washington University in St. Louis, founded the Center for the Study of American Business in 1973 and was given a $750,000 annual budget to crank up the intellectual attack against government regulation. Eight years later, Weidenbaum was chairman of Ronald Reagan's Council of Economic Advisors and deregulation was in the saddle.
The Brookings Institution, once labeled the home of liberal intellectuals, moved steadily rightward, both in its personnel and in its ideological preferences, as corporate contributors financed new rivals that challenged Brookings's status. Right-wing millionaires like Joseph Coors, a beer magnate from Colorado, plunked down small fortunes on conservative scholars, most notably at the Heritage Foundation, an aggressive new think tank that was more willing than AEI to pitch the narrow objectives of particular investors.
The corporate counterattack also had a profound social effect on government: Over the last generation, big money came to Washington, a rush of affluence unprecedented in the city's history. The general political vision was inevitably warped by the gilded prosperity that politicians see all around them. The federal government is now situated in the best-educated and best-paid metropolitan area of the nation. The capital of democracy is seated in a city where citizens of average means cannot afford to live.
"Everyone's here now -- private America," said Richard Moe, formerly the chief of staff for Vice-President Walter Mondale and now a lawyer-lobbyist in the Washington office of an important Wall Street firm. "That's what has changed so dramatically in the last quarter century. Because of regulation and so forth, everybody feels the need to be here -- and they brought a lot of money with them."
That statement provides a crucial framework for understanding every aspect of the democratic problem that will follow in this book: They brought a lot of money with them. The Commerce Department's annual list of the ten richest counties in America, measured by per capita income, is now led and dominated by the Washington metropolitan area. Five of its suburban jurisdictions rank in the top ten. Places like Marin County, California, and Fairfield County, Connecticut, that were once the favorite symbols for the "good life" in America now rank below Arlington County, Virginia, or Montgomery County, Maryland, where so many of Washington's lawyers and lobbyists live.
While Wall Street's new wealth was more spectacular at its pinnacle, Washington's new wealth has a broader base. Between 1980 and 1986, for instance, the number of Washington households earning more than $75,000 a year increased more than fivefold. Meanwhile, the median household income for America at large hovered around $30,000. That is, half of American households earn less. Families of such modest means are actually disappearing from the capital's metropolitan area -- compelled to move elsewhere by luxury home prices and rising rents. Their numbers shrank by 18 percent during the 1980s.
Commerce naturally gravitates to where the high incomes are concentrated and the once sleepy town has become a cornucopia of luxurious shops, prestige department stores and gourmet dining, both the ostentatious and the tasteful. While many other American cities look worn and shabby at the center, Washington's commercial core has taken on an elegant newness.
The capital's rarefied culture of new money, inevitably, did something to the social sensibilities of government, even among those in politics who are concerned about the less fortunate. The general affluence makes it harder for the people in power to see the contradictory social facts beyond their own everyday experience.
Public-interest reforms did indeed open up the processes of government decision making to alert citizens, but these changes had another consequence for democracy as well. As an economist would put it, the reforms raised the cost of entry and participation. Democratic expression became much more expensive -- too expensive for most Americans to afford.
Who can afford to show up at all of these public hearings? Who will be able to deploy their own lawyers or scientists or economists to testify expertly on behalf of their agenda? Who is going to hire the lobbyists to track the legislative debate at every laborious stage? Most citizens do not qualify. Unless they wish to give their lives over to politics, they cannot possibly keep up with the demands on their time and attention or afford the expanding costs. Indeed, unless they have an intense moral commitment to political activism, very few citizens will be able to identify any governing decisions in which their personal stake is so large as to justify the daunting cost of protracted involvement.
The Jeffersonian ideal of engaged citizens, splendidly articulated by Ralph Nader and others, did motivate hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions to participate and it created a vast new network of activist organizations. But it presumes qualities of citizenship that are not inherent in all people and, indeed, the assets of leisure and money are distributed mainly to the best-educated and most affluent.
In any case, even this expansion of citizen involvement was swiftly outflanked by the increased political investments from business. By the 1980s, there were seven thousand interest organizations active in Washington politics, and business's share of this pressure system was overwhelming -- actually greater than it had been a generation earlier, before the public-interest reformers came on the scene.
Public-interest groups, according to a Senate study, were stretched so thin that they were absent at more than half of the formal proceedings on regulatory issues and, when they appeared, were typically outnumbered ten-to-one by industry interests. On some important matters, industry would invest fifty to one hundred times more resources than the public-interest advocates could muster.
This paradox -- democratizing reforms that actually deepen the disadvantages of ordinary citizens -- is rooted, of course, in a much older dilemma of American democracy, the political inequality generated by inequalities of wealth. The fundamental dimensions were starkly outlined nearly thirty years ago by Anthony Downs in his landmark essay, An Economic Theory of Democracy, a book that devastated political scientists' smug faith in pluralist democracy.
"In an uncertain world," Downs wrote, "it is irrational for a democratic government to treat all men as though they were politically equal."
If democracy is analyzed in the economist's terms of costs and benefits, Downs explained, then political action for most citizens will logically be an "irrational" expenditure of their resources, including time, since they cannot possibly derive personal returns sufficient to compensate for their output. In the economist's perspective, he observed, "Only a few citizens can rationally attempt to influence the formation of each government policy."
Downs's analysis provides a plausible explanation for why voter participation has declined steadily in the modern American electorate. As citizens have become better educated and less bound by the "irrational" political habits of family and party tradition, perhaps they perceive more clearly the economic logic that Downs described -- that political participation, even just going to the polls and voting, offers such a diffuse and uncertain return that a "rational" economic man will decide: Why bother?
But Downs's description of "economic democracy" applies with equal force to the governing processes that lie beyond elections -- where the cost of collecting information and acting on it is even higher than for voting. If cost is a permanent barrier to democratic expression, as it obviously is, then democracy becomes a contest merely for the organized economic interests, not for citizens. If there are no strong mediators equipped to speak for them, then most citizens will never be heard. If public desires and aspirations cannot be easily reduced to definable economic outcomes, then they will be treated as secondary -- wishful spectators to the real action. In fact, those conditions form a fair description of the contemporary system -- a shrunken version of "economic democracy" that mocks the original idea.
Democracy, one would think, should at least be permanently committed to the goal of nurturing and defending equality in political expression, even if everyone concedes that private wealth and power will always be unequal and that individuals thus will always be unequal in their ability to exert influence. The reform ideal, one might suppose, would be to create in politics what business people like to call a "level playing field."
The existing political system is prejudiced in the opposite direction. It actually subsidizes the political expression of those who already enjoy the advantage in resources. This subsidy is embedded in the federal tax code in the form of allowable tax deductions for activities that are really self-interested political expression -- tax breaks that, practically speaking, are only available to corporations and people with substantial surplus wealth.
In terms of business tax accounting, this may seem plausible. In terms of everyday democracy, however, it means that all other taxpayers are picking up part of the tab for the political exertion of the vast corporate apparatus that surrounds government. The "white hat" citizens Jack Bonner recruited to lobby against the clean-air bill are a deductible expense for Ford, Chrysler and General Motors. Likewise, both corporations and wealthy individuals are given tax deductions for their "charitable contributions" to tax-exempt foundations, including all the think tanks that produce the sponsored research for them.
In fact, think tanks and foundations perform the research and advocacy functions that in many other industrial nations would be undertaken by the organized political parties. The economic function of political parties and secondary mediating institutions is that, by performing expensive tasks for others, they spread the cost of political participation among many, many people. In other words, only collective action -- organized citizens with common interests -- can reduce the entry costs that are political barriers for all of them.
In an elaborate fiction, the tax code pretends that tax-exempt foundations are not political since they are prohibited from participating in campaign politics. Everyone knows this is a sham. Tax-exempt money, it is true, cannot play directly in partisan elections, but that is not where most things get decided anyway. The tax-exempt foundation is such a congenial mechanism for political influence that politicians have started using it directly for their own purposes.
Representative Les Aspin of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, founded his own think tank, named after himself and financed by "charitable" contributions from defense manufacturers. Senator Jake Gain of Utah, ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, did the same, though the Gain Institute is financed by tax-deductible donations from banks and other financial institutions. A survey by the National Journal found 51 senators and 146 House members who are founders or officers and directors of tax-exempt organizations that produce research and propaganda.
Any American, of course, is free to start his or her own tax-exempt foundation. All one needs is the money. Aside from the insult of helping pay for this hidden political subsidy, most ordinary citizens cannot themselves enjoy it. Most Americans do not itemize deductions on their income-tax returns and they will receive no tax benefit even if they contribute twenty-five dollars to a tax-exempt organization working for their favorite cause. An auto company deducts the cost of flying its executives into Washington to lobby senators on the clean-air bill. An ordinary citizen has to pay his own way.
To begin to redress these inequities, the Congress would have to rethink the political favoritism fostered by the tax code and try to correct the balance in favor of ordinary citizens. At the very least, this requires defining the tax code in more honest terms and eliminating the fictions about what is "educational" and what is really self-interested political activity. Government would either withdraw tax concessions for all lobbying and other political actions or make the tax breaks truly available to all citizens.
If government were truly interested in fostering political equality, it would go much further. If tax deductions were curtailed for corporate politics and the assets of foundations were modestly taxed, the revenue could be devoted to the noble purpose of reinvigorating democracy. The tax code might offer an annual tax credit of one hundred or two hundred dollars to every citizen who wished to engage in political expression.
Any citizen would be free to contribute the money to any political activity -- parties, candidates, issue organizations, local political clubs, whatever -- and then be reimbursed for the contribution at tax time. This modest subsidy would not come close to overcoming the advantages of wealth, but it would certainly widen the field of democratic energies. If the reform were to cost the Treasury $10 billion or $20 billion in lost revenue, that does not seem too much to spend on restoring the national legacy.
A new broad-based source of potential funds would create a powerful incentive for political organizations of every kind to redirect their attention to the neglected citizens -- all those people who lack major resources or status. Citizens themselves would have an independent resource base for inventing their own politics -- defining political goals and strategies in their own terms -- without the need to beg for funds from beneficent patrons.
Political reforms such as this speak to real questions of who has power. They would thus be deeply threatening to nearly all elements of the status quo, including some of the virtuous citizen organizations that claim to speak for the public at large. Whether they are left or right or nonpartisan, if groups depend upon foundation grants and tax-exempt donations for their own budgets, they do not have much incentive to experiment with citizen choice. Likewise, universities and academic scholars at think tanks would doubtless resist any effort to remove the political sham from the tax code since they are major beneficiaries of the present system.
Giving individual citizens the capacity to deploy political money -- however modestly -- would inevitably shift power away from existing structures and disperse it among the ordinary millions who now feel excluded. Could ordinary Americans be trusted with this power, the ability to decide where and how vast political resources should be directed? How one answers that question will say a lot about whether one believes in a real democracy.
The inequality of resources, however, is not the only barrier erected by information-driven politics and not the most important one. In practical terms, the most dreadful consequence is the way in which ordinary citizens are silenced and demoralized -- made to feel dumb -- by the content of information politics. The very language of the debate and the value-laden ideas that now dominate political decisions have created their own set of privileges.
Political values are mostly derived from personal experience -- commonsense ideas about what constitutes a just relationship, the things one learned in early childhood from parents or the Bible or other children. Those values are what most citizens bring to the table when they engage in political activity. In a democracy, those expressions would be greeted as a valuable contribution.
In the modern political culture, they are disparaged. The public's broad political values have been preempted by other materials -- arcane rules drawn from economics, law and science -- that provide the main grist of information politics. On issue after issue, the public is belittled as self-indulgent or misinformed, incapable of grasping the larger complexities known to the policymakers and the circles of experts surrounding them. That complaint, though sometimes correct in the narrow sense, masks the nature of the conflict.
The real political contest, on issue after issue, is a struggle between competing value systems -- the confident scientific rationalism of the governing elites versus the deeply felt human values expressed by people who are not equipped to talk like experts and who, in fact, do not necessarily share the experts' conception of public morality. Outcomes that economics describes as efficient (and therefore just) will not necessarily satisfy the public's thirst for justice. Aroused citizens, who resist the economist's version and enter the debate not fully understanding its terms, are often puzzled about why no one will listen to them seriously.
If one listens carefully to the language of political decision making, the raw outlines of this struggle can frequently be heard. The public's side of the argument is described as "emotional" whereas those who govern are said to be making "rational" or "responsible" choices. In the masculine culture of management, "emotion" is assigned a position of weakness whereas "facts" are hard and potent. The reality, of course, is that the ability to define what is or isn't "rational" is itself laden with political self-interest, whether the definition comes from a corporate lobbyist or from a federal agency. One way or another, information is loaded.
For elites, the politics of governing is seen as a continuing struggle to manage public "emotions" so that they do not overwhelm sound public policy. The corporate sponsors of the Superfund Coalition worried in their planning memos about how to shape the "emotional climate" that would surround the next Superfund debate. Frank Mankiewicz of Hill & Knowlton described his industrial clients' fear that "the politicians are going to yield to the emotions" on environmental issues. Jack Bonnet boasted that his recruitment of grassroots citizens "brings emotion to the table" in behalf of the business position. These expressions are commonplace among governing elites. The theme of unstable public emotions is a staple of newspaper editorials and learned conferences.
The rise of information politics enhanced the elite side of this argument, equipped it with precision and authority and daunting complexity. A favorite put-down of the unreasoning public, for instance, is the accusation that Americans wish to live in a "risk-free society" -- a desire that is obviously utopian, too costly to achieve and ignorant of scientific uncertainty. The complaint is usually expressed by business leaders or conservative scholars who do not themselves live next door to a hazardous-waste dump or downwind from a factory spewing dangerous chemicals into the air. Their economic status and political power protect them from such risks, though they think others ought to be willing to accept them.
In any case, their economic analysis has determined that, dollar for dollar, the cost of eliminating the pollution risk will exceed the potential benefits and is, therefore, an inefficient use of economic resources. The application of this standard is itself fraught with uncertainties and debatable assumptions that the sponsors usually neglect to mention, but essentially they are making an argument about social values, dressed up as a sophisticated claim about economic science.
Angry parents, worried about their children's health or their own, would skip over the economic logic altogether. They are not talking about cost-benefit economics or a utopian "risk-free society." They are talking about the possibility of cancer in their own family. What makes them so angry is the blind injustice -- their well-being threatened by third parties who seem not to care.
Furthermore, the uncredentialed public sometimes "knows" things before science does. Starting in the 1960s, for instance, a popular folklore developed in America concerning a "cancer epidemic" stemming from dangerous industrial chemicals freely distributed in the air, land and water. Science -- and public-policy officials and, of course, chemical companies -- dismissed this talk as stemming from irrational fears, utterly without a factual foundation.
Twenty years later, science began to see the facts that were arousing the public's fears. The National Cancer Institute reported in 1989 that cancer incidence among children under fourteen increased 21.5 percent from 1950 to 1986. Cancer cases among adults (excluding lung cancer) were up by 22.6 percent over the same period. The authors of a similar study by the New York Academy of Sciences did not claim to know the exact causes, but suggested "environmental factors" as the explanation because cancer death rates increased fastest in industrialized regions and among men rather than women, suggesting occupational exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. This does not establish, of course, that widely held popular opinions are always rational or always right, but simply that popular perceptions are entitled to much more respect than the political elites give them.
Many citizens, given these experiences, have come to distrust scientists almost as much as they distrust lawyers, if the scientists are employed by a polluting industry or even by the government. Their skepticism is not altogether irrational. Scientists, like lawyers or economists, may well reflect the institutional biases of their employers. A survey of scientists' attitudes on environmental risk found this bias to be strong and clear. Among industry scientists working for corporations, 80 percent said they believe there "threshold exposure" to cancer-causing materials and thus below certain levels there is no health risk. Among government scientists, only 63 percent agreed. However, a majority of academic scientists, 60 percent, believed the opposite -- that there is no safe level of exposure to carcinogens. If the experts' opinions on such a basic question can be defined by where they work, who can say what is rational or irrational?
In any case, the deeper argument is not about science or economics, but about moral law, though most citizens would perhaps not put it that way. Lois Gibbs, national leader of Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, a national grassroots movement, explained how the moral issue is obscured by political debate on toxic pollution.
"Would you let me shoot into a crowd of one hundred thousand people and kill one of them?" Gibbs asked. "No? Well, how come Dow Chemical can do it? It's okay for the corporations to do it, but the little guy with a gun goes to jail....What they throw at me is that I am a single-issue person. Yeah, I am a single-issue person. I look at the issue of people being poisoned and it makes me mad and I wonder why it doesn't make everybody mad. It's a moral issue and that's why we won't go away. This is a movement for justice and, if people have their morals and ethics intact, regardless of what issue they face, they'll be okay."
By Gibbs's political measure, for instance, the new Clean Air Act enacted in 1990 was a moral travesty. It permits oil, chemical and steel companies dispensing toxic air pollution to kill as many as ten people in one hundred thousand in the neighborhoods surrounding their factories, refineries and mills (and gives companies twenty years to achieve this standard). The new law abandoned the moral standard enacted in the first Clean Air Act in 1970 -- that protecting human life and health would be the overriding purpose of clean-air regulation.
As a practical matter, the federal government had already abandoned the human standard long before, for it now subjects policy decisions of almost every kind to a crazy quilt game of elaborate rationales, economic analyses designed to justify doing -- or often not doing -- what the law seems to require. These calculations, formally known as "cost-benefit analysis" or "regulatory impact analysis," attempt to measure the dollars that will be expended versus the dollars to be saved as a result of particular government decisions, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to Agriculture to EPA.
While the use of cost-benefit formulas originated in the Executive Branch, every legislative debate is now fought out on this murky technical ground. Cost-benefit calculation is the highest art form in the realm of persuasion by information -- and the most deceitful. Its purpose is to construct ostensibly scientific benchmarks to justify what are really political judgments. The results are anything but scientific.
To construct cost-benefit equations, for instance, economists must first decide how much a human life is worth -- since the supposed economic benefit of saving a life will be measured against how much it costs to do so. The government has produced many godlike answers to that question. The Federal Aviation Administration put a value of $650,000 on a human life lost in an airplane crash. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the Labor Department decided a dead construction worker would be valued at $3.5 million. The Office of Management and Budget countered that a dead construction worker was worth no more than $1 million. Across the government, nearly every federal agency and department has played Solomon, coming up with wildly different judgments.
The use of these technical tools -- aside from the ludicrous biases and inconsistencies -- leads to conclusions that offend public morality as well as law. In essence, property rights (and profit) are being assigned a higher value than human rights. Human lives are discounted, quite literally, by government economists, as they decide whether it is worth the cost of saving them. Not surprisingly, their supposedly scientific methods are usually biased in favor of not doing anything.
When agencies concoct statistical life values, for instance, they typically include the economic benefit of preventing a death caused by industrial hazards or pollution, but not the benefit of preventing long-term illness and injury, since that is more diffic
The Betrayal Of American Democracy
Who Will Tell The People
The Betrayal Of American Democracy
How do we put meaning back into public life? Greider shares the stories of some citizens who have managed to crack Washington's "Grand Bazaar" of influence peddling as he reveals the structures designed to thwart them. Without naiveté or cynicism, Greider shows us how the system can still be made to work for the people, and delineates the lines of battle in the struggle to save democracy. By showing us the reality of how the political decisions that shape our lives are made, William Greider explains how we can begin to take control once more.