The Importance of Following the Money in Politics

Say it ain’t so, Joe!

He hasn’t even taken his oath of office yet, and I’m already writing about a concern I have with the Biden administration. Yes, I voted for him (and even wrote a blog post about my planning to vote for him[1]), but this doesn’t mean that I (or anyone else) should avoid holding who we vote for accountable.

The offense? President-elect Biden nominated former Secretary of State John Kerry to be Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate. Kerry, who is also a former United States senator and the Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States back in 2004, is a believer in climate change and taking measures to address it. However, people should have concerns about whether Kerry will be as bold as he needs to be (and by extension, concerns about whether the Biden team will be as bold as it needs to be) on climate change, which is a major crisis.

Why am I concerned? Just look at Kerry’s investments. I don’t know about now, but at least as of 2013, Kerry had investments with dozens of companies in the oil and gas industry. And these are not all small investments, either—at least six of those companies he had investments in were of $100,000 or more.[2] At the very least, in the recent-ish past, he was benefitting from big oil money.

I hope that between 2013 and now, Kerry has dropped all of his oil and gas investments. If he hasn’t, then people should definitely be concerned about his investments keeping him (and, by extension, the Biden administration, potentially) from being as aggressive as he should be on the issue of climate change.[3] That concern should be present because aggressive action on climate change would go against the best interests of what’s potentially profitable for many of these companies Kerry has invested in, and by extension for Kerry himself; because of that, it’s reasonable to be concerned that this conflict-of-interest could result in Kerry not advocating for actions as bold as they should be.

Let’s be real though—Kerry is only a microcosm of a larger issue, which is the concern that money, and particularly receiving of money from certain people or entities, could influence politicians in unjust ways.

This problem can manifest itself in many major issues, ranging from climate change to income inequality. From Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma saying odd things about environmental issues and then having the oil and gas industry as his second largest industry of contributions,[4] to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer being criticized for being cozy with Wall Street (with Wall Street being accused oftentimes as being a big reason for our current income inequality) and then having big banks as four of his five largest lifetime contributors,[5] there are serious concerns about money having a major influence on our politics and politicians.

However, these concerns about big money polluting our politics in unjust ways can only be recognized if we follow the money. If we learn about the monetary connections to the policies of the Kerrys, Schumers, and Inhofes of the world, we can start to recognize how it might be the large donor class, and not so much the constituents these politicians are supposed to serve, that influences the work that is done (or the work that is not done).

As to how we can learn about these monetary connections, I would strongly recommend starting with a website called Open Secrets for national candidates (presidential candidates, as well as members of Congress). This website can allow you to learn about what sorts of companies contribute to individual candidates, as well as which companies a candidate has investments in. That way, you can learn, for example, that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a lot of money invested in the technology sector,[6] so if she ever sounds tepid about holding Facebook accountable for certain things, maybe it’s because of the $500,000+ in investments she appears to have in Facebook. As for holding local and state-level candidates similarly accountable, it varies from municipality to municipality, and from state to state, but in many cases there are ways to find out even at the local and state level who your elected officials seem financially beholden to.

By learning to follow the money with our politicians and their actions, we will hopefully also learn how much big money can result in some of the positions our elected officials take, even if some of those positions are unjust. Recognizing this might not solve any injustices, but it could offer one explanation of how we ended up where we are in the first place with issues like climate change, income inequality, and many others.


[1] https://blindinjusticeblog.com/2020/10/26/how-issues-of-injustice-influenced-my-presidential-pick/

[2] https://www.opensecrets.org/personal-finances/john-kerry/assets?cid=N00000245&year=2013

[3] While I am guessing that Kerry will help the Biden team with any help needed in rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, there should be concern about whether he, and by extension the Biden administration, will be as aggressive as needed. You can read about the Paris Climate Accords here: https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/what-is-the-paris-agreement

[4] https://www.opensecrets.org/members-of-congress/james-m-inhofe/summary?cid=N00005582&cycle=2020

[5] https://www.opensecrets.org/members-of-congress/charles-e-schumer/contributors?cid=N00001093&cycle=CAREER&type=I

[6] https://www.opensecrets.org/personal-finances/nancy-pelosi/assets?cid=N00007360&year=2018

On Advocates for “Economic Justice” Advertising Unpaid/Underpaid Internships

ʾTis the season for finding an internship if you are a college student or recent college graduate. It can be an exciting and terrifying time.

Many of those internships are unpaid, though. These unpaid internships are inherently unjust[1] for a multitude of reasons: they are a way for places to get work done without having to properly compensate anyone for it, they exclude less wealthy individuals from opportunities that can give them an “in” within their desired field (because they don’t have other support so they can’t afford to work for free or for sub-minimum wage), and they leave employees (the unpaid interns) with no recourse if they get injured at work, to name a few.

That being said, such behavior is about what I would expect from a corporation whose main goal is to have as large of a profit margin as possible.

But from organizations or elected officials that advertise “economic justice” as one of their main missions? Seriously? You have got to be kidding me.

Such things are quite common with economic justice organizations. I have come across internships that advertise a summer of advocating for economic justice on one hand, but don’t carry that out themselves because they pay little to nothing to their interns on the other hand. It’s actually quite common for economic justice organizations with millions in donations, ranging from the Sargent Shriver Center for Poverty Law[2] to the National Center for Law and Economic Justice,[3] to advocate for economic justice while having unpaid internships. By advocating for economic justice but not carrying out that message through actually paying interns, those messages of economic justice come across as disingenuous.

It’s also quite common to see unpaid internships from elected officials who talk about economic justice and equality. While some people fess up (sort of) and say that a posting for an unpaid internship was made “in error,”[4] some don’t care, and others (including some I know) will argue that they want interns to be paid but that they simply don’t have the budget to pay their interns. While the last of these three sentiments comes across as well-intended, such a response should not let the elected official who doesn’t pay interns (especially elected officials who talk about economic justice) off the hook. To the contrary, if the paying of interns is a funding issue, maybe elected officials should consider advocating funding for pay for interns with the same sort of vigor that they have when advocating for funding for pay raises to give to themselves.

If any of these suggestions make advocates of economic justice cringe, #SorryNotSorry. Unpaid internships are an issue of economic justice. Anyone who wants to not just “talk the talk,” but “walk the walk,” on economic justice should do everything in their power to pay their interns. Especially if the money is there to pay their interns.


[1] Just to set the record straight, my ire is directed at places that have money and can afford to pay six figures to their CEOs but “can’t afford to pay the interns.” It’s not directed at places where the money is scant and can afford only modest salaries (or no salaries at all) for even the higher-ups, places that are really driven by volunteers.

[2] https://povertylaw.org/files/jobs/Summer%20Legal%20Intern.pdf

[3] There was a listing from 2017 that I cited here, but as of the time I most recently updated this post (December 2020), it looks like the listing was finally taken down.

[4] Yes, I’m talking about Chuck Schumer’s office: https://www.businessinsider.com/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-slams-future-colleagues-congress-for-employing-unpaid-interns-living-wage-2018-12