Pinstripes and Teabags

10/08/2010 03:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tea Partiers are rightly concerned about the escalation of "pinstripe patronage," the award of government booty to the rich and powerful. They are outraged by the billions given to bailed out banks, whose executives then rewarded themselves with huge bonuses, spa vacations and rosy futures. Nothing like a hot rocks massage to ease the bleak picture of millions of jobless Americans. Tea Partiers are upset by the soaring power of government, which can make or break individuals and institutions (read Lehman Brothers). They are alarmed by the rising deficits that result from this government largess to the nation's elites, while home foreclosures reach epic proportions.

The rise of "pinstripe patronage" results from the convergence of two factors: the soaring costs of political campaigns, and the simultaneous need to reward political supporters. The Christmas turkey has been replaced by earmarks, outsourcing and billion dollar, non-competitive defense contracts. Patronage today means gifts to folks more at home in the boardroom than on the assembly line, who covet membership on the board of Fannie Mac---and not a job as sewer inspector.

Tea Partiers are right and wrong at the same time. They are right in the sense that less government means more freedom of speech and the press; it means government stays out of the bedroom and the boardroom... in effect, more "power to the people." And they are rightly angry when they find that their taxes go to a "Bridge to Nowhere," a mariachi band in Las Vegas, and and airports without passengers.

There's the rub: the connection between patronage and policy. That's where the Tea Party has gone wrong. It's not necessarily less government that we want, but better government. When disaster strikes, we look to government. The millions left homeless by Hurricane Katrina didn't expect to be confined to formaldehyde riddled trailers, manufactured by politically connected companies. Take a look at the billions of dollars spent on Iraq and you'll see the same problem.

Less government creates a vacuum, which we all know nature abhors. Life is a zero sum gain. In today's world, less government means more corporate control over our daily lives.

The rush to deregulate, supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, allowed industries to regulate themselves, creating a fox in the chicken coop situation. Banking deregulation was a key factor in creating the financial crisis. Similarly, government's removal of a firewall called Glass-Steagall allowed the banks to move into areas that have led to the mass home foreclosures and a recession from which all of us now suffer.

Bottom line: We have a lot more control over government than we do over the corporate world. We can vote out presidents, senators, hose members, governors, mayors and county officials whose policies we deplore, and elect those with whom we agree. What's our recourse when we object to corporate policies? Kvetching just doesn't cut it.

(Martin and Susan Tolchin are authors of the newly published "Pinstripe Patronage: Political Favoritism from the Clubhouse to the White House, and Beyond." Martin spent 40 years at the New York Times and Susan is University Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University)