A positive feedback loop begins when an activity produces a result which increases that activity. The most obvious example is when a microphone feeds into a speaker system which in turn sends sound back into that same microphone. The result is a loud scream that persists until someone covers the microphone and turns down the volume on the speakers.
We have a positive feedback loop in our political economy and it could do us in if we don’t correct it.
There have always been threats to our free enterprise system. A hundred years ago Teddy Roosevelt saw the dangers in the development of trusts. These were highly profitable groups that effectively controlled various industries by agreeing to trade favors and set prices among themselves. They would drop their prices should a competitor appear and then once the competitor had been driven out of business, raise prices again. That effectively killed competition in industries from steel to mining to oil and created a few incredibly wealthy men. There was a law against that sort of thing, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, but it wasn’t enforced. The wealthy could buy off the enforcers. Teddy Roosevelt saw the dangers and acted to break up the trusts. He was a Republican but if he took that tack today he would be kicked out of his party.
The problem now is different but it has the same effect on our economy. We have a bunch of people called lobbyists who are paid to influence lawmakers. Various businesses and interest groups hire these people to plead their case before the appropriate representative or senator. Lobbyists want to influence legislation that favors their employers. There are 12,600 of these people registered with the government in Washington. That’s about 23 lobbyists for every member of Congress. They naturally concentrate on committee chairs and on other powerful members. The National Rifle Association alone employs 29 lobbyists. (Some of these may also lobby for other organizations.) These folks have lots of money to spend, money supplied by their organizations.
For example, there are thirteen coal industry trade associations which together spend more than $400 million lobbying Congress, usually to reduce those pesky regulations the industry really hates. In contrast the United Mine Workers union spends less than half a million. Guess who’ll win that one. This doesn’t count what the coal industry spends on ads to convince the public that they only have the public good at heart. You’ve seen that clever one where an electric cord is plugged into a lump of coal. You don’t want your electric bill to increase do you?
So the upshot is that effective lobbyists get legislators to pass legislation favorable to the companies they represent. Sometimes lobbyists even write the legislation.This increases the profitability, or otherwise enhances the interests, of the organizations which hire them. When these organizations become more profitable they then increase their lobbying budget, either by hiring more lobbyists or by dumping more money on the compliant legislators, and a positive feedback loop is born.
Lobbyists are well aware of their unsavory reputation. Political candidates hate to be accused of ever, ever having lobbied. So the lobbyists push back. They claim they are educating the people in Congress. They have a valid point here. A brand spanking new Congressperson needs help—on the issues and on finding his or her way to the Congressional dining room. A new batch shows up every two years so there is always more educating to do. They aren’t called freshman Congressmen and Senators for nothing. Of course there is a fine line between educating and indoctrination. College professors have been accused repeatedly of crossing this line. (I can tell you though, on a personal note, that trying to indoctrinate students and teach them analysis of variance all in one semester would be nigh impossible.) In any event, there is probably some truth to the education argument.
Unfortunately money comes in here. There are laws against lobbyists paying Congressmembers directly. Those were passed by Congress. Of course no law passed by Congress which limits Congress people’s perks is without nice big loopholes. Even though you cannot give money directly to a legislator for voting your way he can still benefit financially. All legislators have reelection committees. When the legislator votes as instructed the lobbyist informs his employer who then makes a very generous contribution to the “Committee to reelect whomever” and that money may be spent in many ways for the personal benefit of the Congressperson, ways which only tangentially relate to reelection. Picky, picky! And of course you’ve heard that anyone can contribute any amount of money toward any election they wish, so big money is involved. The point needn’t be belabored, voting the right way pays off. This enhances and accelerates the feedback loop.
The answer is to get money out of politics. Fat chance. Suppose we passed a law that politicians could not leave office any richer than when they arrived. That might work if you could pass it… and if you could enforce it. I would bet that if you tried, politicians would find that their wives and children had suddenly acquired excellent jobs that paid phenomenally well.Now that the Supreme Court has decided that money is speech, most of our political campaigns have become a lot more expensive. On July 17 the Senate refused to pass even a disclosure act which would have identified who was making those unlimited campaign contributions now permitted by the Court. If people can contribute $10 million to a campaign, is it likely that anyone will try to offset that with their $10 contribution?
If we had a Teddy Roosevelt, and we don’t, I have no idea how he would break this loop.