These are glory days for investors. Last month the Dow Jones Industrial Average touched 16,000. It's more than doubled since its low point in early 2009. Overall stocks are up more than 20 percent in 2013.
Sounds great. But if you put your money in a mutual fund or an IRA hoping to ride the gravy train, you missed the biggest and best investment opportunity in history. The real place to park your money is in Washington, D.C. That's because the way to get ahead isn't to work hard or make things; it's to lobby Washington for special privileges.
Look no further than the sweet deal the sugar industry gets. It's spent about $50 million on federal campaign donations over the last five years. So that would average out to $10 million per year. Last year alone, the federal government spent $278 million on direct expenditures to sugar companies. That's a great return on investment.
Here's what the sugar growers are buying: Federal tariffs make it expensive to import sugar, which is supposed to protect the domestic sugar industry. Meanwhile, the federal government gives sugar growers a price floor. If prices drop, the federal government will buy the product at above-market prices. The 4,500 sugar farmers in the U.S. simply cannot lose.
But the rest of us, those who eat, bake, and pay taxes, lose big. This year, Washington's sugar policy cost consumers $826,000 for each sugar-production job saved, according to a recent Department of Commerce report. That's a heavy price for all of us to pay. Meanwhile, tariffs have driven many candy makers overseas.
Then there's ethanol policy.
Until 2012, the federal government provided generous tax credits to refiners that blended ethanol into gasoline. In 2011 alone, Washington spent $6 billion on this credit. The federal government also maintains tariffs (54 cents per gallon) to keep out foreign ethanol, and it mandates that tens of billions of gallons of ethanol be blended into the American gasoline supply. Nothing like a federal mandate to create demand for your product.
How much would you pay for billions of dollars worth of largesse? Well, the ethanol industry got a steep discount. In 2012, opensecrets.org says, the American Coalition for Ethanol spent $212,216 on lobbying. To be fair, that's down a bit from previous years. And there are, no doubt, other lobbying efforts going on, including direct campaign contributions.
Forget T-bills; investing in policymakers is the place to win big.
What makes Washington especially profitable is that its only products are the laws, rules, and regulations that it has the power to force everyone else to follow. This is a fairly new concept in the United States.
For centuries, our political and economic system has been based on what Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, the authors of the book Why Nations Fail, call "inclusive" policies: the rule of law, constitutional institutions, and copyright. These institutions encourage people to work and invest by ensuring they can make money by doing so.
Instead, we seem to be sliding toward what the authors term "extractive" institutions. That means government using its power to benefit a handful of influential individuals at the expense of everyone else.
There's no need to panic yet. The U.S. still has the Constitution. We still have a culture that rewards hard work and success. And, as the fracking boom proves, we're generally more interested in extracting real resources from the ground than in extracting favors from the government.
But investors, like bank robbers, go where the money is. As long as the ROI is higher in Washington than on Wall Street or Main Street, money's going to flow here. Perhaps the scandal isn't that people are buying political favors; it's that they're getting them so cheaply and easily that the rest of us have hardly even noticed.
Rich Tucker is a senior writer in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation.