The Richmond Register

Lifestyles & Community

October 26, 2013

Making Washington listen to Main Street

RICHMOND — “And I’m pulling out of here to win.”

— Bruce Springsteen

As I near the end of my 10 years as a syndicated financial columnist, my goal has been to give people common sense financial insights.

Many of them are in my new book, Don McNay’s Greatest Hits: Ten Years as an Award Winning Columnist.

I have advanced degrees and designations, but my best lessons were learned at the school of hard knocks. The tuition there was higher than the prestigious universities but the lessons were more valuable. I want to share those lessons and save others the pain, money, and time of going through them.

One of the reasons I stayed a columnist was my anger at how Wall Street and Washington have treated the people on Main Street. I want Main Street to have a voice.

Somewhere along the way, Washington and Wall Street stopped talking to Main Street. Part of the reason is that Washington and Wall Street don’t feel economic pain firsthand.

I was in Washington during the lowest point of the economic crisis of 2008 and was struck by how different it was from other cities. Federal employees in Washington were not being furloughed or laid off. Lobbyists and consultants there seemed to be fully employed. Washington real estate was not in freefall, like it was in Florida and Nevada. Washington remained one of the most expensive cities in the United States.

Washington couldn’t have empathy with the pain of Main Street because they were in a totally different world.

People try to pinpoint when Washington and Main Street disconnected. I think it was in the 1970s, when paid political consultants became a dominant force in American politics.

Image-making has been part of presidential politics since 1840, when the wealthy and socially prominent William Henry Harrison defeated Martin Van Buren after Harrison was marketed as a “log cabin and hard-cider drinking” common man.

Prior to the 1970s, to get elected, office holders had to maintain some tie to grassroots political organizations that drew their power from supporters on Main Street.

Professor Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia wrote an influential book, “The Rise of Political Consultants,” in 1982. He discussed how technology such as political polling, targeted direct mail and sophisticated media purchases allowed candidates to run for office without the support of a political organization.

A potential candidate didn’t have to spend years knocking on doors, stuffing envelopes, and working his way up in a political party. All he had to do was raise enough money to hire well-trained consultants who could execute an image and a message that voters would buy.

To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, after the advent of political consulting, raising money wasn’t everything, it was the only thing.

There is no easier place to find money than on Wall Street.

Washington could go to Wall Street and come back with sacks of money. Wall Street could get Washington to do things that would let it make more money. That meant Wall Street could increase the amount of campaign donations and lobbying money it sent back to Washington.

Robert Kaiser nailed it in his outstanding book, “So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government.” When Main Street differs with Wall Street, Washington will consistently weigh in on Wall Street’s side.

Some people are looking for a political solution. I really don’t see one.

Measures such as public financing and campaign spending limits have been tried and ultimately shelved. Whenever a law is passed, political fundraisers eventually find a way around it. The result is that Wall Street keeps sending money to Washington.

I spent my post-college years heavily involved in politics. Most notably, I was a state coordinator for Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign. I see many good people in elected office. Most get into public life wanting to make a difference. All of them eventually learn one thing: the art of getting re-elected.

People who spend their lives in elected office are very good at staying there. Just like you and I, they want to hang on to a career they worked hard to earn.

Congressmen understand what it takes to keep 51 percent of the voters happy and they are good at it. Since 1980, at least 80 percent of congressmen and 75 percent of senators were re-elected in every election cycle. Noting that trend, change in political leadership is going to be marginal at best.

No matter which political party is in power, Wall Street manages to have its own people on crucial congressional committees, in cabinet-level positions, and in almost any bureau that might attempt to regulate them.

The influence of big money on Washington is not going away soon. There is not a viable way to replace it.

I don’t advocate marching in the streets or writing a letter to your congressman.

Your congressman’s pollster has already told him what you are thinking about before you even sit down at your computer or lace up your shoes.

A better form of protest is to set up your own finances in a way that reduces the influence of Washington and Wall Street on your life.

For many years, the two parties have been the Democrats and the Republicans. Now I view the parties as the people who depend on Wall Street and the people who don’t depend on Wall Street.

My major suggestions are non-partisan in the traditional political party sense.

The idea of reducing debt and getting rid of credit cards is frequently advocated by conservative radio host Dave Ramsey. Being self-employed is a concept both political parties tout in some fashion. Move Your Money is a concept that Arianna Huffington, a Progressive, developed. Americans agree with the theory of “get rich slowly” and giving back to their communities, even if they don’t always practice the concept themselves.

The best way to think globally and act locally is to do two things at the same time.

Each individual can work toward being a good citizen. That includes supporting local businesses, being a good neighbor, and gaining financial independence.

Secondly, recognize that your actions can ultimately reduce the power of Wall Street and Washington over Main Street. That is what “thinking globally and acting locally” is all about.

How and where you spend your dollars speaks louder than a thousand tweets on Twitter.

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