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My family is from West Virginian and I have some relatives back home who are fierce red partisans who ardently believe that fascist mismanagement of our country by the executive branch will restore some imagined golden age (I, on the other hand, think that America’s leadership crisis is dangerous and will, at best, make the future dimmer and more difficult… but we’ll talk about that closer to the midterms).  At any rate, on a vexing Facebook feed from the Mountain State, I spotted this meme, which is meant to counter the idea that politicians are beholden to financial contributions from the gun lobby.  Ripped straight from the frothing mouth of social media, here is a list of the top 50 lobbying spenders:


These numbers are worth talking about on two levels.  First, although this list doesn’t explain much about NRA contributions to candidates (why! they’re not even on the top 50 list!), it shines a rather disconcerting light on why American healthcare costs more than twice as much as it does in other developed nations. Health outcomes from our system are not nearly as good as they are in, say, Chile or Slovenia, and life expectancy in the United States is falling, yet it seems like pharmaceutical and insurance companies have found a way to spend some of their loot!  This differently organized chart of direct political donations by industry over the last 20 years makes this point even more dynamically:


There are some other unpalatable truths in there, as well, if you are in the mood to find out why net neutrality got binned or our national transportation policy is a mess.

However, both of these charts are misleading when it comes to the gun lobby, which brings us to our second point. Here is a rather more accurate breakdown of NRA spending.


The red and pink parts are what shows up in the earlier charts.  That yellow portion of the pie is “outside spending”.  This money does not directly support candidates, instead it is used to attack opposing candidates who propose gun legislation.  These ads tend to come from “Americans for safe homes” or suchlike anodyne organizations which are funded by the NRA’s “Political Victory Fund” (or they can come straight from the NRA which likes to have member, after all).

I suppose my libertarian cousin, were reading this, would angrily retort “Yeah! But what about the outside spending by insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms, and trial lawyers? What is that like?”  I have no answers (and I am tired of looking at charts), but that really IS an excellent question.  Here is another one: how are we supposed to have a democracy when figuring out who is paying for different sorts of political outreach is like figuring out Chinese shell companies?  (as a side note, if you invested a lot of money in Chinese public companies, you may wish to look more closely at the control of such entities).

I grew up in the country and I actually sort of like guns, although they have no place here in Brooklyn (there’s some smug coastal NIMBYism for you).  Unfortunately, the glowing fantasy of power and control they provided is evaporating as I get older (I, mean, even if I had a firearm…the fact that I go through life unarmed makes such notions an even greater stretch).  We’ll get back to America’s relationship with guns and power later this week, right now though, looking at these charts is making me feel even more powerless.  I have no MONEY.  How is one to make one’s point to the world in such circumstances?  A bunch of dull charts about how giant nebulous lobbying groups are misleading us with dark funds?


Hey did you see this United deplaning business on the news?  If you are here on the internet, I suspect you know exactly what I am talking about, but, in case you are reading this post in the far future or found it stapled to a tree or something, here is what happened: United Airline needed some seats on a full flight in order to move their staff around.  Instead of bribing their customers to take a different plane, the airline coerced the passengers with the fine print of the ticket contract (which, as you can imagine, allows airlines to do anything they want in exchange for zooming you across the continent at 700 miles an hour). One customer was aggrieved and refused to leave his seat, so they called in militarized corporate guards (or the police? Who can tell these days?) to beat him up and drag him off the plane. The United CEO then issued a statement basically saying “We can do as we like. Our market is guaranteed.”

Airline market share

As you can imagine, this has stirred up some hard feelings among the general public, but the CEO was right.  There is a cartel of four carriers which controls the majority of flights around America.  If you wish to fly, you must do so at the cartel’s terms (or else you need to buy a plane).  This consolidation has allowed the airlines to cut service, increase fares, and add a proliferation of fees. Most markets are under the thumb of a single carrier and, if you want to fly where they have suzerainty you will have to use that carrier or not fly.  Good luck getting a train or even a bus in America.


I don’t mean to pick on the airlines: cable service provider, pharmaceutical companies, oil conglomerates, insurance companies, major banks…even toy companies all operate the same way in today’s deregulated society.  America has a monopoly problem: but today’s companies are smart enough to avoid having one entity take complete control of a market.  Business schools and the school of hard knocks have taught the heads of these companies to be slightly subtler about the way they fix prices and collude.   With their record profits, they have also bought up politicians and control the relevant legislation that goes in front of them.  Do you care about flight regulation legislation enough to lobby your congressperson?  I personally do not, but I bet United sure does!


The bigger takeaway here is that capitalism is facing challenges of extreme success which are causing it to morph into naked oligopoly.  This in turn is stifling competition and innovation.  It is also breaking our political process. The Republican mantra that “government is the problem” and cartel companies like United or Aetna should be allowed to run everything for the benefit of a tiny number of great aristocrats does not really seem like a platform which was drafted by groundlings!  The Democrats pretend otherwise but they abandoned responsible attempts to reign in business cartels back in the 70s.  The parties have different favorites, but they are both content that the game is rigged.

It is not supposed to work this way.  In an ideal market, you could punish United and its smug multimillionaire CEO by spending three dollars more to take an airline that doesn’t beat up its passengers and drag them off the plane screaming.  In a better democracy, you could vote in a district where the winner was not already predetermined by gerrymandering.


This sort of thing means we are going to have to pay attention. We all need to be aware of regulatory capture: an endemic species of corruption whereby giant companies write rules which look reasonable, but which actually price smaller competitors out of the marketplace.  Politicians rubber stamp these rules and claim they are looking out for the public interest (while the cartels support their subsequent careeers).  We are going to need to be more attentive and smarter, or we are all going to be doing what giant corporations and their pet politicians tell us to do.  The moment where we can act is quickly passing. We must push for effective new antitrust measures or we will all have to take our tiny expensive seat and shut up while brownshirts probe and beat us to their hearts’ content… not just when we fly but everywhere all of the time.

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