Monday, December 26, 2016

A Different Kind of Lobbying

Political lobbyists are the target of a lot of bad press, and deservedly so.  Big corporations, unions or other interest groups pay them to get the attention of lawmakers and to persuade them to pass laws or propose regulations that favor their particular industry or group.  Some say that these activities keep lawmakers informed on the subtleties of certain industries.  Better understanding of the dynamics can reduce the number of unintended consequences and those in Congress cannot be experts on everything.

On the other hand, most of the population has the impression that these meetings and lunches are little more than legalized bribes for the rich to disproportionately influence government, an attempt to bring “government in as a partner, looking to see what the country can do for them.”  The auto industry and banks get their bailouts.  The military is given weapons they haven’t requested and don’t want.  In short, to lobby is to try to get your way without regard to what others want or what is best overall for the country.

But there are other activities almost the same as lobbying that most people either ignore or consider healthy.  This came to mind when I came across a news story from England.  It is about behavior in a foreign country, but the type of behavior itself is certainly not foreign to Americans.  In fact it’s quite common.

The controversy arose over the new five-pound note.  When vegans and vegetarians discovered that the new tougher and more waterproof bill was made from a plastic polymer containing small amounts of tallow, derived from animal waste products, they took to social media demanding the contents be changed.  They called the use of even a small amount of animal products not cool and disgusting.  Their rights were being trampled.  Since they were not going to eat the pocket money and the contents were by-products of a food production process that would be thrown away otherwise, it’s hard to see how any harm was done.  It’s not like more animals were being slaughtered.  Yet some circulated a petition, gathering over 40,000 signatures, demanding that the contents be changed.

It’s so easy to click a box and sign an online petition.  And you get to feel good about yourself for caring about an issue that’s important to a minority.  You get to stick up for the underdogs, the victims, people whose beliefs were not even considered when the government tried to make their paper money more durable.  But 40,000 is less than one-tenth of one percent of the UK population and only about 3% report being vegetarian.  Does this even make a difference?

This behavior is repeated nearly daily in America.  People will protest slights against groups they aren’t even members of.  The protests are based on the theory that if they can get a large enough turnout and enough press coverage they can influence the national, state and local policy.  The lure is the same – be a savior, do the noble thing, defend the moral high ground. Feel good about yourself for defending the rights of the victims and the marginalized, even if those rights never existed before and even if the victims aren’t even human.  That’s how they get huge, vocal crowds or thousands of signatures when the issues affect a small minority.

We have seen this mindset recently protesting a pipeline in North Dakota, defending a mountain lion that was killing cattle in California, supporting workers who took on obligations before they could earn enough money to support those obligations, and something about solving a bathroom problem that few knew existed.  This is all about pressure on lawmakers.  They throw an organized tantrum until they either get there way or run out of energy.

It’s also so easy to vote, as the people in Massachusetts did to require that chickens and pigs live in larger cages.  Those in favor of happier chickens spent almost $5 million with small demonstrations and other means to publicize the animals' need for more comfortable accommodations.  Those arguing that such changes would raise the prices of eggs and bacon, hitting the poor especially hard, could only raise $300,000 to try to make their point.  The chickens won and the humans lost, primarily because the emotional appeal of reducing what was portrayed as suffering for the animals drowned out the appeal of helping the poor afford food.  So voters went home from the polls feeling like they had made a difference.

Some of these causes are worthy of attention; some are trivial.  But it all sounds like exactly the same dynamic as traditional lobbying to me.  Based on the theories that past behavior predicts future behavior and that behavior rewarded is behavior repeated, I predict that the future will yield more of this free lobbying compounding the problem.  Lawmakers will feel pressure from all sides, as every special interest exerts as much pressure as they can, either through monetary donations to campaigns, by button-holing at the capitol or by demonstrating in the streets and on social media, as those groups attract supporters with the promise that they will feel fulfilled, compassionate and morally superior.

Personally, I don’t think this second kind of lobbying is any healthier for the country than the first.  But we will see.

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