What You Get When You Give

Quick, imagine a person who doesn’t have problems. Okay, everyone has problems, maybe their feet are shaped weird and it’s really hard for them to buy shoes. Fine. What are some adjectives you would use to describe that person? Calm? Happy? Rich?

Yeah, that’s the one. Rich. I’m picturing a person with millions of dollars who takes vacations from the Hamptons. They have great hair, great skin, and three houses, one of which is located in the French countryside. They are the kind of people with money to spare. And what do they spend the money on? You know, charitable donations and political campaigns.

Recently I read an article in the Times about Obama’s big donors from the last election. Apparently, they’re upset, because the Obama administration hasn’t been paying attention to them. They’re sad because Barack doesn’t call them to ask them how they feel about Syrian intervention policy. They’re upset because he doesn’t have time to shoot hoops with them on weekends. One donor, Penny Pritzker, got to hop on Air Force One after she reminded the Obamas how much she donated in 2008. This is has been a privilege generally reserved for presidents and their staffs.

While this is sort of the ultimate first world problem, it’s also emblematic of a much larger problem in the political scene. I mean, we all know that when corporations give money to politicians, they’re essentially buying political favors. Mitt Romney’s top five contributors are Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Chase, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, and Credit Suisse Group. Barack Obama’s are the University of California, Microsoft, Google, DLA Piper, and Harvard. These represent industries that think whichever candidate they’ve backed will be friendlier to them once they’re in power. But private individual donors, like Pritzker, aren’t expecting government better conditions for their businesses. They’re expecting to be let into the candidate’s (and hopeful President’s) inner circle.

When you give someone a gift, what do you expect in return? Me, I only want a “Thank you.” A card is just icing on top, really. If it’s a really big gift, maybe I’ll expect them to give me something the next time there’s an occasion, like my birthday. But I’m not going to start whining because they don’t call me for advice every time they have to make a decision that will affect the free world. Oh sorry. Did you not all send Barack Obama the DVD set of Party Down for his birthday? But it’s okay with me when he can’t counsel through my latest emotional collapse – he’s busy.

This is where I have to dissect the meaning of the word “donate” versus the word “buy”.  “Donate” implies that you are 1) giving, and 2) not receiving anything in exchange for your money. Why do people donate? Because they want to support people doing work they believe in. “Buy” implies that you  1) are receiving something in exchange for your money and 2)want something. Why do people buy? Because they want to have something. I donate to the ACLU because I want them to continue defending civil liberties in courts all across the world. I give, and they keep going. I bought an eye exam because I realize my eye doctor needs to be compensated for his time and medical expertise. I traded my money for a service.

But there are people in every walk of life who treat gifts as currency. It’s like when Michael Scott gets Ryan an iPod on the second season of The Office. He expects Ryan to pay him back by hanging out with him. What’s the word for that? Manipulative? Ask another person and they might tell you, normal. And just like political donors, when Ryan gets freaked out by Michael’s overtures, Michael has a tantrum and turns the secret santa into a “Yankee swap”. Who’s gonna get the iPod? Who’s gonna get $200,000 and funding for 12 hours of attack ads?

In my personal life, behavior like that is just annoying. Okay, you got me a nice present, and I said thank you very, very, sincerely. Then you got mad at me because I didn’t let you borrow my car. So you told me that you wouldn’t get me a gift next year. Eventually, we just don’t hang out.

Since I’m just me, it’s not a huge deal. But if I’m a candidate running for president, that kind of behavior becomes toxic. I’m (me as presidential candidate) charged with supported and creating policies that are supposed to benefit an entire nation. But when you expect me to support your pet project making you the landlord of the entirety of Manhattan (or, you know, making sure you never have to pay taxes or something equally as ridiculous), you’re actually asking me to tell other people they don’t matter quite as much, because they couldn’t afford to buy my attention.

What is the point of representative democracy? To carry out the will of the majority of the people while extending protection to the minority. We elect our representatives from the town level all the way to the national because we believe they will do work that will better our lives. We don’t expect that one person (or two, Koch brothers) will be able to supersede our collective voice by waving around a bunch of cash. The president is not a service you pay for. He (or she someday, right, Hils?) does not owe you anything because you paid “good money”. There are larger responsibilities at play.

What you get when you give is knowing that you helped accomplish something.When I donate, I know that even though I’m not personally helping lawyers defend civil liberties, I’m helping them to be defended. I don’t expect the ACLU to bake me a cake every year.

Look, I’m not this naive. I know how politics works. Our democracy is founded on people giving jobs to their friends or doing little favors for friends in the private sector. Major policy decisions have been made because some senator was pissed that a president didn’t get his son-in-law a military command. So what do I expect to change?

Barack Obama (as much a part of this system that he is) is trying to do something different. He rightly extolls his grassroots donations, with small individual donations coming in at 39.2%, compared to Mitt Romney’s 19.1%. Obviously, he’s not there yet. But I get like four emails from “Joe Biden” every day, asking me to donate just $3. So maybe I am a little naive, after all, because I think that we, the small contributors, can give to a candidate because we believe in his policies, and override the big contributors who think they can write his policies.

Because when I give, I just want a “thank you”, and obviously, health care.

Campaign financing information comes from http://www.opensecrets.org/pres12/sourceall.php

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