Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Citizens United Meets Duckpins For Dollars

Citizens United Meets Duckpins For Dollars

When I was in college there was a television show called Duckpins for Dollars, which pitted local denizens against each other in fierce duckpin contests for very small amounts of money.

Duckpins are miniature bowling pins, and you try to knock them down by throwing a bocce-sized duckpin bowling ball.  Then, you jump up and down when you manage a strike, droop your head when you miss a spare, and otherwise ham it up for the camera while hoping to score a 300 (and $50).  Duckpins for Dollars was half game show, half reality show, and all visionary in creating cheap programming.

I happened to attend a very nerdy but reasonably esteemed institution of higher learning.  We were all very clever and highly educated elitist young men and women.  So we reveled in the working class tomfoolery, the poly satin bowling shirts, the funny accents, and the occasional dental challenges of “Yucks For Bucks”.  Not much of a price for dignity, but they seemed to be having fun.

I hadn’t thought of Duckpins For Dollars until I saw an article in the New York Times, chronicling the efforts of Mitt Romney’s son Tagg, and Spencer Zwick (Mitt’s 2008 chief fundraiser) as they sought to create a private equity firm.  Their aim was true, to the tune of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars, and that fund (named Solamere) now throws off annual fees considerably in excess of the $50 they might have won on Duckpins (even adjusted for inflation). 

Did Tagg or Zwick have experience in private equity?  No, they didn’t.  Who invested in Solamere?  Well, as you might have expected, Mom and Dad kicked in-as I would for my children, albeit with a few missing zeros.  After that seed corn, 60-plus friends of the Romney clan-political friends, business associates, colleagues, campaign contributors, etc.

Solamere has fairly done well and delivered a decent return to investors.  It’s also been been run with an eye towards containing administrative expenses.  To that end, it showed frugality by first sharing an office address with the Romney campaign headquarters in Boston. Later, the company was located in the same building as Mr. Romney’s leadership PAC, Free and Strong America.

Mr. Zwick did nicely for himself elsewhere. While he was heading Solamere’s fund-raising in 2008 and 2009, he multitasked by raising money for Free and Strong.  The PAC paid his finance consulting firm direct fees of $425,000.00.  And there’s other cross-pollination between the campaign, the PAC, and Solamere, with people doing double duty, all one big happy family.

This, as my late father would have said, is the way of the world.  The wealthy and the powerful have each other’s backs.  And money needs a good home, so a quarter-billion just isn’t all that much among friends.

It is logical to ask whether we should care that there’s a potential relationship between Tagg, some of his investors, Mitt, and Mitt’s PAC.  Would President Mitt be influenced?  I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, if for no other reason that I can’t think of anyone who more embodies the idea of doing what's good for business than Mitt Romney. I don’t think he needs the incentive.

The late California politician Jesse Unruh was quoted as saying “money is the mother’s milk of politics”.  That was in 1966, and not much has changed since then.  There’s always been money available; in little sealed packets, by checks, to PACs, from businesses, from unions, through bundlers, through the front door and the back.  There’s “walking around money” pressed into the palms of locals by advance men for campaigns.  In Jimmy Breslin’s book about Watergate, “How The Good Guys Finally Won” Breslin writes about how the young Tip O’Neill was flabbergasted to see the cold hard cash that was handed to JFK’s men.  So, let’s not get our backs up too much when we find out that politics is a game where the dollar is well respected.

Unfortunately, Citizen’s United has completely changed the game, by amplifying those dollars exponentially.  The silly $200 campaign contribution limits are gone, obviating the need for some of the more glamorous skullduggery.  Now, unlimited, perfectly legal and confidential contributions funneled through Super Pacs, organizations like ALEC, and “dark money groups” rule the roost. No more high-fiving for a $50 strike.

Imagine the Congressman or Senator locked in a tight race, and a lobbyist for some special interest group sidles up to him and says, “Congressman, you know that legislation coming through your committee? Well, we have some concerns and some drafting suggestions.  By the way, we’ve always admired your fair-mindedness, even when you didn’t agree with our position, and we’d like to express that by helping out a bit in November.”

Can you blame businesses for trying to acquire that type of access?  Corporations may, in Mitt’s memorable phrase, be people too, but they have no immortal soul-they exist to make profits.  If a perfectly legal contribution to a Congressman can deliver up favorable legislation that produces a high return on investment, why wouldn’t you make it? 

Can every politician be bought?  Of course not, but if you were that Congressman, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t at least listen. It’s good to be a Congressman. And it’s really good to be a Senator.  So, faced with the reality of holding your nose a little for a teensy vote, or possibly being sent packing to less glamorous locales, maybe you hold your nose.

Is this good for the mere rank and file citizen?  Not really, but that’s where Solamere and Duckpins can serve as an inspiration. If wealthy folk can all bond together for fun and profit, why not the rest of us?

There were 131,313,820 votes cast in the last presidential election.  Subtract the one percent and that leaves 130 million voters.  If each of us kicked in just ten measly dollars, that’s $1.3 Billion, which starts to get us into Karl Rove territory.  Heck, maybe we could begin buying back some of our wayward leaders?

It’s a start. Fellow Citizens, let’s unite. Just a thought from a Yuck with Ten Bucks.