The presidential election season is breathing down all our necks now. Both sides promise solutions to our lingering economic problems. Pundits, activists, and average Americans argue that "their" guys and gals will fix everything. Depending on their chosen uniform, these individuals blame a litany of political talking points for America's problems.
It's market-based thinking run amok, blasted capitalists. No, it's government intervention into the marketplace, blasted socialists. No, it's unions. No, it's the 1%. You know the drill.
Certainly some of these factors may exacerbate our problems, but the core issue is much bigger and more serious; it's a problem that can infect any economic system or culture. Corruption's simply run rampant in our society, and too many Americans are more concerned about grabbing the biggest piece of the pie they can than actually fostering true economic health and building happy, productive lives and a better long-term future.
Little do they realize, amid all this fighting (and spending) for political advantage, the aforementioned "pie" supposedly sitting around simply rots away.
The bottomless pit
The American economy may be a mess, but here's one area that's getting a substantial capital infusion: the insatiable political machine. The Democratic and Republican national conventions together racked up a $136 million price tag. The Center for Responsive Politics has estimated that the entire presidential election will end up costing $2.5 billion this year.
The Center for Responsive Politics tracks "heavy hitter" donors on both sides of the political fence on its opensecrets.org site. It recently launched detailed profiles where the public can look up facts on the biggest organizations that use their funds to attempt to influence politics and, by extension, economic rules and regulations.
The Center has identified all-time top heavy hitters including ActBlue, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, and the National Education Association, as well as huge corporations like AT&T (NYSE: T ) and Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) .
Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest lobbying firm, which says it's "Fighting For Your Business" on its website, made the list as the top lobbying organization in 2012, to the tune of $55.3 million.
If you're like me and don't believe politicians are offering many real, long-term economic solutions to our current malaise and the huge number of jobless Americans, the upshot there is that a lot of money's going down a fairly unproductive hole as our economy suffers ongoing and excruciating suckage.
Hope springs from the quagmire
The political game is all about rigging these days, and I doubt either side's solutions will result in anything other than ongoing fiscal crisis, extending malaise, and maybe even destroying us. The only differences may be exactly how they allocate the unproductive funds and the untenable debts they're amassing.
There's no political will to really fix the economy; Americans are simply being smacked with a giant political bill. The average citizen really can't afford it anymore, despite politicians' empty promises about the benefits they'll receive.
Regardless, there are positive signs of innovative American spirit bubbling beneath the radar, even while things look bleak. A few of my ideas fit into an inspiring do-it-yourself ethos despite the sluggish economy:
- Etsy: A hub for artists and crafters to sell their wares over the Internet; it recently achieved B Corp. (short for Benefit Corporation) status, meaning it seeks not only to profit but to also bring about social and environmental good.
- Square: A mobile payment product that helps small businesses and individuals easily accept credit cards using smartphones.
- Khan Academy: Its promise: "Learn almost anything for free." Last year, Wired discussed how the site is trying to change the rules of education.
Those of us who are individual investors can also look for the best and brightest companies to invest in, the ones that are growing and innovating instead of slashing or spending millions to tilt the playing field to their advantage. Sadly enough, it's difficult to find any company that escapes the need to spend some politically tinged dollars, but at least some American companies represent more positive themes for economic growth, or even job expansion. Here are a few:
- Costco (Nasdaq: COST ) provides discounted bulk merchandise for small businesses, helping reduce their costs and hopefully even grow profitability and expand.
- Whole Foods Market (Nasdaq: WFM ) treats its employees well, paying well over the industry standard; it also offers health benefits and stock options to all employees. The organic retailer is also financially successful enough to ultimately plan for 1,000 stores from about 300 today.
- Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) is no stranger to lobbying (it made The Center for Responsive Politics' Top Lobbying Organizations in 2012 list), but if knowledge and information are power, democratized access to these resources define its bread-and-butter Internet search product.
Real return on investment
Americans squander a heck of a lot of time and resources obsessing over, arguing about, or feeding the political machine. If they spent a fraction of that time and money learning, researching, inventing, making, and doing, perhaps the U.S. economy would step up its competitiveness and start generating more businesses and providing more jobs.
Let's stop fighting over rotting scraps and buying into an expensive, unproductive political machine that constantly sells Americans out. If we're going to think about elections, let's spend more time thinking about the ways we ourselves can elect to support the individuals and businesses that create value, growth, world-changing ideas, new inventions, and vibrant opportunity for the long term.
Whole Foods is one of the positive-facing, growing companies mentioned in this article -- and is also a stock that has netted some investors more than 30 times their initial investment. Our analysts have identified the risks and opportunities facing the organic grocer, and in this new premium report, they walk you through the must-know items for every Whole Foods investor. It comes complete with timely updates, so you'll always be in-the-know. Click here for your detailed report.
Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.