On Earth Day six years ago, I gave a speech to a small audience on the UW-Madison campus. I wouldn't change a word if I made it again today. If anything, I would attach a greater sense of urgency to the message.
I said then that the greatest environmental challenge of our time is the health of our democracy and that clean water will never flow from dirty politics. Follow the money and you see why clean air initiatives are so often blocked too.
It's not just our natural resources that fall prey to dirty politics. United for a Fair Economy is a national group that is concerned about the growing concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands in America and how regressive tax policies have encouraged the extreme risk taking, reckless speculation and unchecked greed that have wrecked our economy. But in a critique of President Obama's tax proposals issued two weeks ago, the group identifies the problem behind the problem.
"Like many other industries, the financial industry is enjoying a self-reinforcing cycle between favorable tax treatment and political influence. The more the industry profits from low taxation, the richer it grows. The richer it grows, the more it invests in politicians who will deliver favorable regulations and taxes."
It's not just the investment banks and the big hedge funds that have been playing this game. Look at AIG. Follow the money and you see why AIG was never reined in and then was quickly bailed out once things fell apart. Look at all three industries that are at Ground Zero of the economic implosion. Follow the money and you see why they were allowed to play fast and loose with other people's money and now are being gently tut-tutted for their crimes.
Follow the money and you see why health care reform has had such a hard time getting off the ground in Washington. Or in Madison, for that matter. Speaking of our state capital, look at the Tavern League. Follow the money and you see why the beer tax hasn't been raised in 40 years and why a statewide ban on smoking in public places enjoys such broad public support but has been such a tough sell to state legislators.
Follow the money and you see why payday lenders – a sanitized name for loan sharks – have been left totally unregulated in Wisconsin. Look even more closely and you begin to see why a lot of things that seem so totally out of character for Wisconsin are happening.
It never ceases to amaze me how many people I run into in my travels who have a hard time seeing why politics matters and how government is important to their lives. Self evident as it might be, they don't seem to see that the richest and most privileged in our society clearly believe politics matters a great deal and are convinced government is of the utmost importance. They've invested vast fortunes to warp the rules government makes in their favor. And they've reaped even greater fortunes from those investments.
As many people as I encounter who aren't putting two and two together, I find even more who get it but still are paralyzed when it comes to doing something about it. I can't help but suspect that's because we've all been taught – brainwashed, really – from a very early age to be consumers first and foremost, not citizens.
Of the problems behind every problem, that's the biggest one of all.