OWLS HEAD, Maine — Next rainy day, if you feel like depressing yourself, read George Packer's "The Unwinding," a 400-page look into the "inner history of the new America."
If you prefer the old America, here's why you should read it anyway: the book shows the breakdown of the middle class, almost an American invention in the 20th century, as industries collapsed, safety nets filled with holes, and politics turned into a no-compromise, winner-take-all game in which the electorate became the permanent loser.
But if you only have a few minutes to absorb the message, read the front-page article in this past Sunday's New York Times entitled, "For Freshmen in the House, Seats of Plenty."
Packer's book is ultimately sad, but it has its moments of glory, as can-do Americans struggle against the collapse of the US social compact: "Alone on a landscape without solid structures, Americans have to improvise their own destinies, plot their own stories of success and salvation."
The Times article is more than sad: it details the corruption that unlimited amounts of money have brought to the US political system. We hear all the time that money and lobbyists are running Washington, but we don't really appreciate the depth of how much has changed, in a relatively short period of history, until we read actual figures: in 2009, lobbyists earned $3.47 billion lobbying the federal government.
Congressmen are increasingly second-rate individuals, but that doesn't mean they're dumb: they know how to cash in. In 1974, 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. Today, it's 50 percent for senators and 42 percent for their colleagues in the House. And the pace is accelerating: over the last 12 years, corporate America — and much of that, Wall Street — has tripled its spending on lobbying.
What's particularly disturbing about the Times article is how it details the way freshmen congressmen buy in — willingly, but with instruction from their elders — to the system of legal corruption: "After the elections in November, Democratic Party leaders gave a PowerPoint presentation urging their freshman members to spend as much as four hours a day making fund-raising calls while in Washington," which "adds up to more time than these first-term lawmakers were advised to spend on Congressional business," the article notes.
This, of course, is why a seat on the Financial Services Committee is so sought after; that's where the money is. Andy Barr, a Republican freshman, has raised nearly as much money so far this year from PACs run by the financial industry as has House Speaker John Boehner from all his supporters. And all along it has been thought that getting a seat on the Financial Services Committee was desirable as a way to help control the industry that delivered the financial collapse five years ago.
It's corruption, pure and simple, regardless of the take on it peddled by Chief Justice John Roberts' Supreme Court. The Times article notes that last month, Barr "introduced legislation to eliminate a new federal rule intended to prevent banks from issuing mortgages to customers who could not afford to repay the debt."
Not to be outdone, Ann Wagner, also a Republican freshman with a seat on that same House committee, "sponsored a bill that would block or delay Labor Department rules intended to prevent life insurance agents and other brokers from selling financial products they know may not be in the client's best interest."
Needless to say, the selling of votes for cash is not limited to Republicans: all seven freshmen Democrats on the committee joined with Republicans — over the objection of the Obama administration — "to support measures advocated by Wall Street banks that would roll back some of the strictest provisions" of the Dodd-Frank regulations, a law passed in 2010 to prevent another global collapse.
Nor is it just re-election being sold to the highest bidder; once today's freshmen congressmen leave the House they can move on to a million-dollar-a-year job lobbying for Wall Street with their former colleagues.
Americans seem to know instinctively how corrupt their congressmen are; it's not just Washington gridlock that keeps Congress's approval ratings fluctuating in the low teens.
The underlying problem is that it's a self-perpetuating system, as shown by the vast increase in recent decades in both money and lobbyists spending it. Term limits might have some positive effect on fund-raising. Direct legislation — a law limiting the amounts that anyone, challenger or incumbent, could spend on an election — would obviously be beneficial.
But with the cash deck so stacked in favor of incumbents, except for a few retiring members, what congress member would support, much less introduce, legislation that would hamper his or her re-election efforts? Or, heaven forbid, shut off the revolving door that guarantees a continuing Washington future — and a nice rich one — when he or she tires of politics?
But if money is destroying our legislative branch, money being dumped into presidential campaigns also is contributing to our despondency over the state of electoral politics.
During the 2012 presidential elections, upwards of $2 billion was spent by the two campaigns, and, according to the Huffington Post, the top 150 consulting companies grossed more than $465 million. Politics is big business, and not just for the politicians.
So, are we surprised at what now appears to be the likely outcome in 2016, that Hillary Clinton is almost certain to be the Democratic candidate? After all, she, with husband Bill's help, can raise the money. She can do quite nicely padding her own pockets these days, reportedly getting $200,000 for a speech.
Considering that Republican voters will consist even more exclusively of aging white males than it did in Romney's defeat, she'll win the 2016 election. Going back to 1988, and projecting forward to 2024, this will mean the country will have been run for 28 of 36 years by two families, Bushes and Clintons.
This is a consequence of what has been wrought by that most important tool of modern American democracy — money.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.