Only the wealthiest citizens, by and large, can afford to give $10,000 or more during a single federal political campaign. As I wrote in my column in Sunday's Inquirer, the Sunlight Foundation has documented the large and growing concentration of such donors in the financial sector - what Sunlight calls "the Growth of the Political One Percent of the One Percent."
The numbers suggest an important question: Is there a connection between all that big money and the bipartisan reluctance to regulate the sector's practices?
The pictures below - graphs showing how elite donations from finance, insurance and real-estate businesspeople increasingly dwarf contributions from other influential sectors - speak for themselves:
In presidential-election years, the totals are even larger:
How much goes to each party? Most years, the sector's contributions skew toward the GOP. But not always - and the largess is plainly directed to both sides of the aisle:
The bottom line?
Sure, we have the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau - a huge step forward, if the GOP doesn't succeed in blocking its efforts. And yes, that agency is evidence that the bipartisan give-the-banks-whatever-they-want coalition isn't impenetrable.
But on a host of other issues - such as a refusal to consider the breakup of too-big-to-fail banks or to reimpose the Glass-Steagall Act's separation of commercial banking from riskier investment banking - the industry has largely gotten its way.
It's true there are risks to any intervention in markets. But as the 2008 financial crisis demonstrated, there are also risks in deregulation, or inaction as markets evolve in dangerous directions. Though economists almost always argue against interest-rate limits, we never really had a public debate over the effective repeal by the Supreme Court of state "usury" limits on consumer lending. We've barely had public discussion about the dramatic changes delivered to the markets by computerized models that allow instant, "risk-based" pricing for major obligations such as home-equity loans and mortgages.
If big money from the financial sector is stifling those debates, we all may pay a pretty big price.