Thursday, October 15, 2015

Fighting Special Interests

I watched a CBS interview with Charles Koch and was surprised to hear him say that his only interest in politics was to combat "special interests."  He’s not the only one.  Almost every public interest group, candidate, and campaign manager trots out the bugbear of special interests as their favorite windmill to tilt against.  If Mr. Koch, and Koch Industries, is not a special interest, what is?

That's a very good question.  What is a special interest?  The liberal side of politics has for many years claimed to be the defender of the people against special interests.  Now conservatives are doing the same, and extremists on the far right curse them both for being the champions of special interests.  Extremists on the far left have done that too, but nobody listens to them anymore, so they don't count.  Classical libertarians are suspicious of everyone, including other libertarians.

I imagine that for Mr. Koch special interests include environmental groups lobbying for more regulation of his refineries and pipelines, unions lobbying for the right to organize, groups lobbying for an increase in the minimum wage and better working conditions, and probably those who think income inequality is a serious threat to our national well being.  He would be right.  They are special interests, in the sense that any group representing a segment of the economy is, by definition, a special interest.

Every person or group that takes a position on public policy and tries to influence the legislative outcome represents some sort of special interest.  It's time we recognized that, and quit engaging in diatribes against them as if special interests are in conflict with the common good just because they are special.  The self righteous indignation that some people can generate by claiming opposition to special interests may effectively jerk the emotional reins of voters, but it's all a sham, the prestidigitation of propaganda, and we should knock it off. 

Of greater concern should be the reasonably objective examination of the issues and positions advocated by various groups in terms of their effect on the economy as a whole.  And by economy I mean the whole fabric of society, not just the balance sheets of businesses and households.  

Follow the money is always a god place to start.  How is any particular group funded, and what do the funders stand to gain or lose in the outcome of issues advocated by the group?  It may be that there are incredibly selfish motives involved in the issues and outcomes, but selfishness alone is not what makes them good or bad.  Moral judgment has to be made on the probable effect on the economy as a whole.  As a Christian, I would add that a special bias must be added – the effect on the poor and oppressed, whoever they may be.  That’s one of my special interests. 

But following the money sometimes goes nowhere important.  A current local issue will illustrate the point.  Floods once decimated our town every now and then.  Decades ago the Corps of Engineers built a series of reservoirs, controlled diversion of spring runoff into various creeks, and levees along a portion of our largest waterway.  Pathways along the levees provide bicycle, pedestrian, and horse trails in a beautiful setting enjoyed by a variety of birds and animals.  Over the years brush and trees have grown up along the levees in ways that the Corps believes are undermining their integrity.  They want to remove them along a fifteen foot wide corridor.  Various environmental and recreational groups are adamantly opposed.  The fight is on.  Following the money wouldn’t lead anywhere.  There isn’t much to begin with.  Yet each side represents a special interest, and each has fielded experts who disagree with each other about what should be done.  What should be done?  What would you do?  Why?  What assumptions and pre-judgments tend to push you this way or that?

The issue is important not only to nature lovers, hikers, and horse riders.  The outcome will have an effect on the water supply and safety of our community.  It will have an effect on migrating fish.  Some wildlife will find their man made habitat disrupted, but not destroyed.  We shall see what happens in a few months. 

Here is another one.  Local hard core conservatives are delighted that the Ex-Im Bank was not reauthorized.  They see it as corporate welfare of the worst kind.  But local wineries, wheat farmers, and small manufacturers rely on it to insure their overseas transactions in ways that private insurers can’t.  If you follow the money it will lead back to giant aerospace companies, but if you examine the effect on the whole economy you will discover deep roots leading into farms, small industrial businesses, and Main Street.  

What’s the answer?  Follow the money first, but always examine the issues and their outcomes for their effect on the whole fabric of society.  As for special interests.  We all have them. 


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