Posts Tagged ‘political patronage’

A couple of posts ago, I used the phrase “pay to play” in reference to our bought-and-paid-for system of political patronage. This is one of those open secrets we all recognize but gloss over because, frankly, in a capitalist economy, anything that can be monetized and corrupted will be. Those who are thus paid to play enjoy fairly handsome rewards for doing not very much, really. Yet the paradigm is self-reinforcing, much like the voting system, with promises of increased efficiency and effectiveness with greater levels of participation. Nothing of the sort has proven to be true; it’s simply a goad we continue to hear, some believing in the carrot quite earnestly, others holding their noses and ponying up their dollars and votes, and still others so demoralized and disgusted with the entire pointless constellation of lies and obfuscations that refusing to participate feels like the only honest response. (Periodic arguments levied my way that voting is quite important have failed to convince me that my vote matters a whit. Rather, it takes a bizarre sort of doublethink to conclude that casting my ballot is meaningful. Of late, I’ve succumbed to sustained harangues and shown up to vote, but my heart’s not in it.) I can’t distinguish so well anymore between true believers and mere manipulators except to observe that the former are more likely to be what few civic-minded voters remain and the latter are obviously candidates and their PR hacks. Journalists? Don’t get me started.

The phrase put me in mind of two other endeavors (beyond politics) where a few professionals enjoy being paid to play: sports and performing arts. Both enjoy heavy subscription among the masses early in life, as student sports and performing groups offer training and experience. The way most of us start out, in fact, we actually pay to play through classes, lessons, training, dues, and memberships that provide access to experts and put us in position to reap rewards later in life. Maybe you attended tennis camp or music camp as a kid, or you paid for a college education (defrayed perhaps by activity scholarships) majoring in athletics or theater. Lots of variations exist, and they’re not limited to youth. As an endurance athlete, I continue to pay entrance fees to race organizers for the opportunity to race on courses with support that would otherwise be unavailable without the budget provided by participants, sponsorship notwithstanding. Chicago’s popular 16-inch softball leagues are pay-to-play sports.

A second phase might be giving it away for free. As with paying to play, pure enjoyment of the endeavor works as a strong motivation and justification. This is probably more common in the community-level performing arts, where participation is just plain fun. And who knows? Exposure might lead to a big break or discovery. It’s also what motivates quite a lot of amateur athletes, especially for sports that have not gone mainstream. Olympic athletes (tertiary events) might fall roughly into this category, especially when their primary incomes are derived elsewhere. A third phase is being paid to play. If the audience or fan base is big enough, the financial rewards and fame can be considerable. However, those who enter the professional ranks don’t always demonstrate such great prowess, especially early on. More than a few blow up and flame out quickly, unable to sustain the spark that launched their careers. There’s also being paid to play but earning well short of a livable wage, which borders on giving it away for free or at least for too little. A final phase is being paid not to play. A mean interpretation of that would be that one is screwing up or blocking others’ opportunities to the point where it becomes worthwhile to pay someone to not show up or to go away. A more charitable interpretation would be that one’s employment contract includes time-off benefits that require continuous payments even when not playing.

As with my post about the differences between the Participation, Achievement, and Championship Models, I’m now content with numerous endeavors to be either pay to play, play for free, or play for too little. Participation makes it worthwhile under any payment regime, the alternative typically being sitting at home on my couch wasting my time in front of the TV. I never made it to the enviable position of being paid to play or paid not to play. Still, as an individual of some attainment and multiple areas of expertise, I admit finding it irksome to observe some truly awful people out there pulling in attention and wealth despite rather feeble efforts or abilities. The meritocracy may not be dead, but it often looks comatose.

We all live in perceptual bubbles of varying breadth and focus. Otherwise, we would be omniscient, which none of us is or can be. Two hot topics that lie outside my perceptual bubble are geopolitical struggles in Israel and Northern Ireland. I’ve also read analyses that suggest that our current troubles and involvements in the Middle East are part of a clash of cultures going back two millennia, where the mostly Christian West won the battle back in the Middle Ages but newly gained oil wealth in the Middle East has prompted a resumption of hostilities. I have a mixture of opinions passing acquaintance with geopolitics, and the complexity of the myriad interacting elements keeps me from getting a good fix on what’s proven to be a constantly shifting target. That aspect of modern history is the domain of intelligence agencies, military strategists, and diplomats. I don’t necessarily trust those professionals, though, since they operate with their own perceptual biases. (When your main tool is a bomb hammer, everything tends to look like a target nail.) But I also recognize that I’m in a really lousy position to second-guess or drive from the back seat. Plus, I have zero influence, even at the voting booth.

In the narrower arena of domestic and campaign politics, the news media (journalists) have failed in their legitimate role as the fourth estate, which function is now being performed by their cousins in entertainment media. (I’ll skip the diatribe that journalism has essentially merged with entertainment and utterly lost any claim to objectivity.) Specifically, we live in a surprisingly mature age of political satire replete with shows that deliver news in comic form far better than serious journalists do with straight faces. The model is undoubtedly The Daily Show, which has already spun off The Colbert Report, Last Week Tonight, Full Frontal, and The Nightly Show. Each of these shows features a host considerably smarter than the audience, who proceeds with rapid-fire (though scripted) takedowns of all manner of political dysfunction. Each has its own stylistic tics, but in aggregate, they arguably do a better job of investigative journalism these days than, say, 60 Minutes, Dateline, or 20/20. Better yet, since they don’t pretend to be serious journalism, they can dispense with bogus claims to objectivity and simply go ahead to indulge in righteous indignation and silly stunts, exposing corruption, stupidity, and inanity in all their shameful manifestations. Political humor has now become a form of gallows humor. (more…)

I was sent an e-mail message that presumes spending habits can or should be political statements directed to companies we patronize based on those companies’ own political patronage. My guess is that data on corporate political contributions were culled from the Center for Responsive Politics, which runs a website at The reason why that’s a guess is that when I tried to locate the underlying data shown below (I reformatted a bit), I couldn’t find it in a handy report already formatted and presumably vetted. I did, however, find several websites (such as here, here, here, and here) that repeat the data without comment while being heavily politicized. The date of origin is also up for grabs, as the earliest appeared in August, well before the election cycle was completed.

I find it curious that, other than Seagrams in the middle and Heinz at the bottom of the table, corporations are lopsided in their support of candidates from one party or the other (still only two parties worth considering), essentially cancelling each other out in aggregate. Of course, neither party has been inhospitable toward business interests, both parties in turn promoting corporate profit over the general welfare because, well, that’s where the money is. It’s also true that patronage by the public is mostly a wash, considering how the Rep./Dem. ratio is roughly 50/50, at least if one believes the polls. The entire notion that politics can be moved in one direction or another with either our votes or donations or spending seems to me addle-brained. I’m not so na├»ve as to think that large contributors don’t in fact get some bang for their buck with respect to specific legislation, permits, waivers, tax rebates, policies, or other consideration (e.g., women’s reproductive rights will fare far better under Democrats than Republicans), but the macrocosm remains largely unaltered, the two parties being nearly indistinguishable in how they curry corporate favor.