On Wall Street and far beyond, crowds of people are occupying city spaces, enraged by the status quo. One thing that most agree on is that corporations are wielding too much influence in government -- and we need to change that. I also agree.
Among the grievances set forth by Occupy Wall Street's General Assembly are these:
[Companies] determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.
[Companies] have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.
Companies certainly influence economic policy, and it's a plain fact that they contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to political candidates and parties. The fact that their contributions have continued -- and even increased over time -- suggests that they're getting something for that money.
Indeed, in 2010, $3.5 billion was spent on lobbying by corporations (and some associations, such as unions), more than twice as much as a decade ago. At OpenSecrets.org, you can see who's giving what to whom, and among the biggest political donors you'll see familiar names such as AT&T (T), Goldman Sachs (GS), Citigroup (C), United Parcel Service (UPS), Altria (MO), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), and Microsoft (MSFT).
A Cleaner, More Radical Solution to the Problem
It's good that people are becoming more aware of the level of financial fawning corporations are doing on Capitol Hill. It's good to see proposals that want to reduce the amount that companies can contribute to politicians.
Sorry to say, that's not going to cut it. I'd like to take it further than that. Here's a question I posed nearly a decade ago:
Why are corporations permitted to contribute even one dollar to politicians?
It's Government of, by, and for the People, Not Corporations
I'm not against capitalism. Just as our American form of democracy can be a beautiful thing, with checks and balances in place to prevent trouble, so, too, can capitalism be a beautiful thing -- with its own limits. Just as religion can operate and thrive in a nation whose founders believed in the principal of separation of church and state, companies can operate and thrive in a nation that separates business and state.
As Abraham Lincoln reminded us, our government is "of the people, by the people, for the people." It was never designed to be of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations. And yet, that is what we are becoming.
It's hard to imagine that this country would allow corporations to vote in governmental elections. So why are they permitted to spend millions and even billions to influence our elections and laws? Why are they allowed to spend even a single dollar on that?
It's Not Even Their Money to Contribute
Another problem with companies making political contributions is that the money they contribute isn't theirs. It belongs to their shareholders, who are rarely consulted about contributions.
As far as the argument that companies influence government in order to boost their businesses and thereby benefit shareholders, that may be true, but it isn't necessarily true that companies should be able to go to such extremes. A tobacco company shouldn't be able to stop the government from regulating it for the citizens' benefit, nor should banks be able to fight reforms aimed to help consumers.
Excess corporate cash should be spent building or sustaining the business, or should otherwise go to the shareholders, via dividends, share buybacks, and the like.
If companies have cases they want to make to governing officials, they should do so with logic, not dollars. A gaming company, for example, might posit to politicians that more casinos will boost the economy. The politicians should be able to weigh such a case against any other, and to take into account what their constituents want and what's best for them and the nation. There should be no dollar signs in the politicians' eyes, hoping for continued support from the lobbying corporation.
It's Time to Occupy Washington
While Wall Street is indeed a symbol of much that has gone wrong, in some ways it's hard to argue with a company doing what it legally can in order to better its position.
Our best hope for change is not for companies to see the error of their ways and reform themselves, but for our representatives to hear the people and to change the rules so that companies cannot contribute anything to politicians or influence elections.
I'm inspired by the folks occupying Wall Street and elsewhere. I hope that the protesters turn their eyes to Washington. It's all up to us. The protesters have begun something important, and those who agree with them need to take action, too.
Consider joining the occupation, and share your thoughts with your representatives and your local newspaper, too.
We can have a much stronger nation and future if we put some effort into it. Capitalism may well thrive more when there's a stronger separation of business and state. It's a modest proposal -- let's outlaw a common evil for the common good.
Longtime Motley Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of JPMorgan Chase and Microsoft, but she holds no other position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Citigroup, United Parcel Service, Microsoft, Altria Group, and JPMorgan Chase. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of AT&T and Microsoft, as well as creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft.
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