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What's Wrong with Money in Politics?

"Some of the best political commentary on the Internet." 
   --Jack Stewart, activist

by Eric Armstrong

Money, of course, buys advertising. And advertising buys votes. To get votes, you have to be perceived as a "winner", to keep people from voting for someone else they may like just a little better. So politicians have to spend like crazy to create and maintain that perception.

Note: Rates go way up during an election year, which makes it all the more expensive--despite the fact that corporations license the airwaves, virtually for free, on the theory that they are "serving the public interest".

Of course, all of the advertising and political sound bites amount to so many "puff pieces". It's all about sounding good. Like Arnold Schwarznegger in the California governor's recall election, it's all about "being for the little guy" and "against big government", and never, ever saying anything substantive on the issues--because the minute you open your mouth, 50% of the people will disagree with you. If you can keep it shut and look good, you win.

But the fact that money turns political campaigns into a game of shadows, charades, and posturing is the minor side of the issue. The real problem with money in the political system is that corporations have acquired the right to be considered "individuals" under the law, which somehow gives them the "right of free speech". And they have used that privilege to dominate the election process.

The Results

There are currently some 10,000 lobbyists in Washington, and 90,000 in the country as a whole. If you assume they are making $100k a year, on average, that is $9 billion that special interests are spending, every year. And they are getting their money's worth! They write virtually all of the legislation that Congress votes on. Here are just a few of the results:

  • Credit card companies have the right to charge 20% interest, raising it up to 35-45% (counting late fees and interest), and to do so retroactively, on money already owed. In times past, that was called usury. It was a hanging offense. But now it's legal.
  • Since so many American were declaring bankruptcy to avoid such charges (50 percent of whom were forced there by medical emergencies), credit card companies got the bankruptcy laws changed so their fees are immune to bankruptcy proceedings.
  • You wanted an electric car. You really did. Not only was it cheaper to run, there was virutally no maintenance. But the automakers killed that one deader than dead--because how much profit is there in an automobile that needs no maintenance?
  • Instead of raising oil prices slowly and incrementally, so that we would gradually become more energy-efficient--and then use that money to fund alternative energy sources, the oil companies worked to make sure we would remain dependent on oil--ideally until every last drop of it was exhausted, global warming be damned. Humanity may suffer but, hey, look at the bright side: Profits are up!
  • Like tobacco companies, the oil companies funded fake institutes to confuse the public with scientific-sounding studies that were totally false, and they did so under the law as a result of legislative action.
  • Drug companies managed to pass a bill that took away the government's right to negotiate prices, while all the while gouging out enormous sums for "expensive research" that is focused mostly on developing "me too" drugs, rather than spending it on pioneering research. And they devote their dollars to finding ways to control symptoms, instead of curing the disease--or, horror of horrors, eliminating the deadly toxins in the environment and the food supply that cause them.
  • Giant agri-business concerns gained the right to genetically engineer and sell "killer seeds" that not only won't reproduce, they infect and destroy the capacity of self-reproducing crops, as well. That way, successive generations will be dependent on those corporations for every morsel of food they consume. 
  • The FDA has become a rubber stamp for drug companies. Meanwhile, it attacks vitamin suppliers, while doing nothing to stem the tide of partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, bovine growth hormone, and genetically modified organisms that infest the American food supply--all of which are illegal in countries that have socialized medicine.
  • The repeal of the act that prevented communications monopolies means that five gigantic corporations now control virtually all of the media outlets in the country. Those corporations either own or are owned by the corporations whose lobbying efforts have given us the results above--so their egregious flaws go virtually unreported.
  • Meanwhile, what was arguably the worst-performing administration in American history was given a virtual pass by the media, because the major news organizations are owned by the very corporations that bought the administration's victory. The hawks should have been screaming that Bush took his eye off the ball in Bora Bora, and let Osama Bin Laden get away. The doves should have been screaming that Bush misled the American people, firing and discrediting anyone who disagreed with his trumped-up analysis. He was also dead wrong about how long it would take, how much it would cost, how many people would be needed on the ground, and how many would die. Even Republicans didn't understand how the administration could promote tax giveaways to the rich while engaging in the largest deficit spending in history, coupled with unprecedented amounts of international borrowing. The only possible explanations were malicious intent or sheer incompetence. Either way, everyone should have been screaming for impeachment. Instead, the silence was virtually deafening.

These problems all stem from the fact that corporate money controls the American political system. Corporations are interested in profit. There's nothing wrong with that, per se. But the goal of maximizing profit is frequently at odds with (if not entirely inconsistent with) humanity's best interests. Goverment needs to act as the brake and the steering wheel on that process so it stays under control. But that can't happen when corporations are running government to their liking.

The Process

Of course, most campaign contributions go to incumbents, who don't need it. They, in turn, gain stature by turning it over to the party, so it can be used to fund races that are in doubt. But when a race is doubt, you'll find the same corporations backing both sides.

With corporations spending billions in return for earmarked funds and legislative payoffs that put billions back in their pockets, they can afford to back many a candidate who is favorable to their positions. That's what they're doing now. In other words, corporate financing is the major reason that so much money is spent on campaigns.

Since money determines the outcome, both parties have to pander to the providers. That's why Democratic legislatures have been just as responsible for corporate welfare packages as Republican legislatures (up until the 2000-2008 Republican legislature, which shattered all existing records).

Funding one side of the election raises the stakes for the other side. So they have to seek equal funding. It's astonishing, but many corporations fund both sides of any race that's in doubt. On the one hand, they want a friend, whoever wins. On the other, anyone they don't fund is bound to lose. So all the candidates wind up feeding at the same trough. In the end, it doesn't really matter which candidate wins--corporate doners control the game. With one candidate, they may make progress more slowly, but they are always moving in the direction they choose.

Conclusion

You can only vote for one candidate. But you can spend money on as many as you want. Corporations have deep pockets, and they are free to do just that. They are vastly outspending the American populace, and the populace is being harmed as a result. That is the singlular tragedy of American politics: When money controls the process, the winner is always money.

So what can you do? In the first place, do not pay attention to any poltical ad on radio or TV, ever. Participate in all-out boycott. In the second place, support the creation of social networking system that distribute voting advice efficiently, so that word-of-mouth is the only kind of advertising needed to get a candidate elected.

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