By “get the money out of politics”, I mean “make money irrelevant to elections”. This article explains why it is so vitally necessary to do so.
Originally published 2004
This section points out why it is imperative that we succeed in our quest. It’s a matter of survival, and a matter of global responsibility. But perhaps the most critical reason of all is that there are viable solutions to the problems we face that are currently not being pursued in any serious way. There are many reasons for this situation, but the root of the problem is the money in politics. Money by itself may not be the root of all evil, but money in politics often is.
It’s a Matter of Survival
Corporations have done a lot of good. They’re also doing a lot of harm. A corporation is like a chainsaw. It’s a powerful tool, and you can get a lot done with it. But if you don’t have it under control, it can rip your leg off. Right now, corporate influence has no counter-balance. Because that system is running out of control, our very survival is threatened:
- Deteriorating America faces epidemic levels of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer—largely as a result of the partially hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup that are virtually ubiquitous in the American diet. They’re in nearly everything that Americans consume. In effect, these ingredients are metabolic poisons. The science is well known. Yet the food industries continue using them, along with other harmful ingredients, because they are more profitable than traditional ingredients. Meanwhile, drug companies reap windfall profits from drug sales, even when natural remedies work just as well—or better—with no side effects.
- Environmental destruction. Species are going extinct at an alarming rate. Millions of acres of habitat are lost every year. Coral reefs are being destroyed. Fishing nets no longer bring up big fish, as a result of water pollution and over fishing. Mercury poisoning affects most of the remaining fish. Meats are loaded with pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, and antibiotics. Soils are eroded, depleted, and left for dead. Oil spills kill entire ecologies. The ozone layer is being destroyed. Global warming produces increasingly violent hurricanes, droughts, and storms. The problem is that corporations don’t know when to stop. There is never enough profit for a corporation.
- Deteriorating working conditions. With all the marvelous machinery, tools, and computer technologies we’ve invented, American productivity is now at the highest levels they have ever been in a long and prestigious history of productivity. But if productivity has increased so much, why are we working so hard? The average American now works 160 more hours per year often at multiple jobs, while making less in inflation-adjusted wages.[Hill, 205. Schwartz, 18-20] The proposal for a 30-hour week, so close to being achieved in the 1930’s and 1940s, has virtually disappeared, and neither unions nor government are powerful enough to reinstate it.
- Destruction of the economy. In their quest for profits, corporations are laying off employees, exacting additional hours, engaging in highly questionable tax evasion schemes, and sending jobs offshore at an accelerating pace. Each corporation sees a small improvement in its bottom line as short term profits increase. But each such action also reduces the number of workers and the amount of wages they have to buy goods, which creates serious downward pressure on the economy in the long term. Step by step, as each corporation acts in its own best short-term interests, the economy lurches downhill towards long-term economic oblivion.
And those are just our national concerns. For those with a more global outlook, there are also serious international repercussions.
It’s a Matter of Global Responsibility
America is at the forefront of economic power and military might. We love to export our democratic ideals and humanitarian concerns, and much of the globe could benefit from more of each. But at the same time, our system is far from perfect. Our democracy has devolved from a government run by citizens into one that is increasingly run by corporations. Economies, environments, and even democracies are being destroyed in the process.
America’s claim to moral leadership is called into question by the resulting destruction. Belief in that leadership is necessary to win the hearts and minds of people around the globe. Without a justifiable foundation for that belief, America will only be able to coerce, never lead, our enemies will never stop attacking, and our critics will never be silenced. Here are the problems we face:
- Global economic degradation. Globalization threatens economies around the world. To achieve maximum profits, money shifts from one market to another in a matter of minutes. There are no long term investments. As money shifts, jobs shift. That threat is making slaves out of third world citizens, who either work for subsistence wages and like it, or watch their jobs go to a neighboring country. There are horrific stories of child labor and concentration-camp working conditions—not only abroad, but in American inner cities. In the end, corporate America bears responsibility for much of those conditions, but pleads both ignorance and necessity—at the same time.
- Destruction of democracy. Then there are the so-called “international” trade agreements. Calling them “international” or “global” agreements makes them sound good, as though politicians around the world were hard at work hammering out their differences. But as we’ll see, the reality is otherwise. In fact, those agreements sometimes display blatant disregard for truly international resolutions that were drafted to ensure liberty and prosperity for everyone, everywhere around the globe. The courts that enforce those agreements are closed to public scrutiny, and they have power to overturn local environmental legislation. Indeed, they have already done so on numerous occasions. Local governments and even national governments as large as Canada and the United States have already weakened their environmental laws as a result of decisions made by those courts.
- Devastating pollution. Pollution knows no boundaries. Pollution anywhere affects people everywhere. Yet pollution is on the increase as a result of those court decisions, and the environmental cost is incalculable. Canada was told it had to remove warning labels that say cigarettes are harmful to your health. Mexico was forced to allow a company to start dumping toxic waste before the existing, cancer-inducing waste was cleaned up. The United States had to roll back environmental laws that protected turtles and dolphins because they were “anti-competitive”. In each case, either the government pays restitution and rescinds its laws, or else it pays millions of dollars in damages every single day for as long as the law remains in effect. At a single stroke, such decisions trample both on the environment and the rights of people to govern themselves.
- Unchecked corporate power. Because the enforcement comes from “independent”, “international” bodies that govern trade, giant corporations can point to them and say, “See. It’s not us. It’s them.” But in fact it’s the corporations who are pulling the strings. It was corporations who created those agreements, and it is corporations who fund and control the international tribunals who make the decisions. There are no checks and balances on the exercise of corporate power in that forum. There is no legislative or executive branch, no elections, no right of review, and right to access, much less a free press. Corporations rule the roost—and most of the corporations are American
- Corporations without a country. At least, the most powerful of the giant conglomerates used to be American corporations. It’s not entirely clear what they are anymore. They’ve found so many offshore tax havens for their profits and pay so little in taxes that they’ve all but abdicated any claim to being American. They love to take advantage of our roads, our educational systems, and the political freedom to advertise and lobby our politicians, but their loyalty appears to stop short of actually paying for the privileges they enjoy.
The root causes of these problems can ultimately be traced back to the influence of money in politics. To solve these problems, we must eliminate money from the political equation. We owe it not only to ourselves, but to the world.
Potential Solutions Do Exist
We face serious problems, but we also have incredible opportunities. As serious as the problems are, there are also potentially viable solutions that promise tremendous benefits. The problem, of course, is that the prospective solutions aren’t being seriously pursued. Here are some potential solutions that are receiving far too little attention:
- Herbal and nutritional remedies. Such remedies have the capacity to cure disease at low cost, with no side effects. More importantly, a “moon walk” project aimed at cleaning up the nutritional environment could prevent disease, add years of quality living to the normal lifespan, and reduce the amount of money we spend on health insurance and medical taxes. Removing harmful ingredients would be a first step. Investigating and promoting the advantages of traditionally preserved, fermented foods is another important step—because there is some evidence that our refrigerators may be killing us!
- Renewable energy. Renewable energy systems could be encouraged and nurtured. A slowly rising tax on gasoline over the last few decades would have funded much-needed research. It would also have made alternatives economically viable and desired by consumers, as happened during the oil embargo in the 1970’s and the California energy crisis in 2003—both of which were all too short-lived. But to exercise such long-term vision requires a government that acts on behalf of society’s interests, rather then vested interests—one that refuses to sacrifice our grandchildren’s environment for a larger economy.
- Sustainable agriculture. Systems of sustainable agriculture like three-dimensional farming hold the promise to reforest the globe, preserve the soil, reduce water and energy use, and raise our quality of life, while being more productive than conventional farming that depends on tilling, fertilizing, and weeding. Genetic engineering could focus on creating self-reproducing crops based on wild seeds, rather than creating self-terminating seeds for crops that can withstand stronger pesticides and herbicides, which further poison the soil.
- Sustainable lifestyles. There are even alternative lifestyles that are more in harmony with nature. They tend to be less in harmony with a grand political economy, but perhaps it is time we investigated them more thoroughly. They represent a different way of living, but perhaps it is a better way of living. Perhaps our education system could be preparing people to engage in those lifestyles.
- Financial reforms. The trend towards financial deregulation that helped to produce the 1990 dot com explosion needs to be reversed. Those regulations were put in place after the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression of the 1930’s, and they were successful until corporate pressure got them repealed. Offshore employment and offshore tax havens need strict regulations, as well. We must rescind the recently introduced “limited liability” partnerships for accounting and legal firms that allow partners to look the other way—and even encourage them to do so to keep from becoming liable. We need to rescind recent changes to patent laws that double the time in which a corporation enjoys a legal monopoly, keeping innovations out of the public domain and depriving society of the benefits of widespread use. We need to change our laws so that corporations no longer keep two sets of books—one for the IRS and one for investors—like Chicago gangsters during Prohibition.
- Tax reforms. There are proposals for alternative taxation systems that hold great promise. Systems based on estate taxes, flat taxes, and resource utilization taxes could eliminate income taxes and the sales tax. They could eliminate tax evasion and motivate corporations to care for the environment. They could give government the funding it needs to monitor corporations effectively and to invest in Social Security and universal health care, along with research that benefits humanity rather than corporations. Perhaps most importantly, they could restore social equality, bridge the yawning gulf between rich and poor, and halt the disintegration of the middle class, which is sliding downward ever more quickly into the ranks of the poor.
- Economic systems. There are economic proposals that promise full employment, and which encourage altruistic behavior by corporations, rather than locking them into a cycle of environmental consumption and destruction based on the need to “produce or perish”. Those proposals can form the basis of a Progressive Capitalism that lies on the mid-point between Communism (which failed because there was no incentive for individual endeavor) and Corporate Capitalism (which is headed toward catastrophic failure because it rewards corporations without limit, despite the cost to society). A system of Progressive Capitalism can achieve a true balance, rewarding individuals in ways that foster initiative, while limiting the harm that results from excessively rewarding exploitation. More than 130 years ago, those systems found their clearest and most compelling explanations in the writings of economist Henry George, although the basic principles were established centuries earlier.
- Constitutional amendments. Corporations have won rights in our courts that were originally intended for people. Corporate abuse of those rights is rampant. Chief among them is the “right of free speech”, which allows advertising that is less than fully truthful, advertising that manipulates children, and excessive political influence. Currently, we can’t curtail those rights without also curtailing personal liberties because, for now, corporations are considered the same as people. Clearly, corporations need some Without them, business is impossible. Corporations also need a way to present their case to legislators, so their concerns are heard and considered. But we need constitutional amendments that clearly distinguish corporate rights from individual rights in order to prevent the abuses that are so clearly evident in today’s society. And unlike human rights, which are deemed to be inalienable, we need to make it clear that corporate rights are in reality privileges granted by the government—privileges that can be revoked or suspended to redress corporate malfeasance, in the same way that serious criminal offenses by people receive a jail sentence, rather than a mere fine. (For a corporation, “jail” is a suspension of the right to do business for some period of time, and the corporate equivalent of capital punishment is a revoked charter.)
- Voting systems. Systems like Instant Runoff* elections and proportional allocation of Electoral Votes would guarantee that the candidate who is eventually elected is the one that the majority of voters prefer. Systems like Ranked Choice** voting would provide substantially better representation for citizens who are concerned about the environment and human rights. Those systems were developed in the 20th century, long after our current system of Democracy was created. Those systems are being used successfully in other parts of the world in a sort of “Democracy, version 2.0”. Many are being used locally in America. They’re not theoretical ideas. They’re practical, working realities. With such systems, an “alternative energy minority”, for example, could become a small but important voice in Congress. Today, those voices are effectively silenced. They are frozen out of the political process, and are left crying out in the wilderness.
* Instant Runoff elections let you indicate your order of preference for the candidates. If a candidate you chose doesn’t have enough votes to win, your vote goes to the next candidate on your list—so you never throw away your vote. You pick the candidates you like best first, even if they have no real chance of winning. You put acceptable candidates with a decent chance of winning at the end of your list. With that system, a vote for Nader in 2000 wouldn’t have cost Al Gore the election.
** Ranked Choice voting is similar to Instant Runoff voting, except that you’re electing multiple candidates instead of just one. You indicate your order of preference, and the way the votes are counted ensures that the winners are an exact reflection of the electorate’s desires. You never waste your vote on a losing candidate; and when a candidate already has enough votes to get elected, your vote counts towards the next candidate on your list. The representative body that results is a truly proportional reflection to the population, the way John Adams suggested it should be in 1776.[Adams, 66]
The Solutions Are Not Being Pursued
As it has been throughout history, society is faced with enormous problems. At the same time, many creative minds have identified solutions that promise a better future for ourselves, our children, and future generations. Those solutions aren’t being pursued in any vigorous fashion, however. There do exist individuals and organizations who are working hard in areas. But neither of the truly powerful social mechanisms we have constructed—corporations and government—are actively pursuing the solutions. Here are some of the reasons for the neglect:
- Corporations aren’t interested. There is no incentive for profit-seeking corporations to investigate such solutions. For example, our immediate health problems could largely be resolved with quality ingredients and nutritional remedies. But quality ingredients lower profits, and nutritional prevention pays nothing. (Except in China, where doctors are only paid when the patient doesn’t) Nutritional and herbal remedies, meanwhile, can’t be patented, so they’re not profitable. And corporations, naturally, are only interested in solving problems that make money.
- Corporations have no choice. Corporations aren’t necessarily evil—although tobacco companies and food producers have evidenced a capacity to suppress the truth that seems to imply malicious intent—but the fact of the matter is that corporations have no choice but to focus on profit-generating activities. To do otherwise is to perish, because our winner-take-all economic system means that only corporations who continually keep growing can survive. But the drive to grow without restraint has been likened to cancer. The analogy is apt, because the unrestrained growth of corporations is, in very real ways, eating away at the environmental fabric that sustains our lives.
- We have unknowingly created much of the problem ourselves. Without recognizing it, we have been collaborating in the corporate focus on short term self interest. At the time, of course, we thought that corporations were providing a useful and valuable service by creating retirement accounts we could invest in. But as a result, billions of dollars are now in the hands of only five financial corporations. The money managers in those corporations watch their investments like a hawk. If any of them doesn’t like what they see, they’ll sell off the investment, which lowers the stock price. The drop in price then triggers an automated sell-off by the computerized portfolio-management programs that every other financial corporation employs. As the bottom falls out of the stock, it shuts off the corporation’s lifeblood—the capital it needs to expand and grow. As far as corporations are concerned, no one is investing in them for the long term, so they are forced to focus on short term profits.
- Government restraint and government mandates are necessary. The only choice corporations have is to focus on short term profit. So they’re not going to engage in long term thinking that sacrifices immediate profits. In other words, corporations are never going to restrain themselves in the current economic climate. They’ll never invest in unprofitable research, no matter how much benefit it may have for humanity. Clearly, they need external restraints and external mandates—the kind we depend on government to provide. When government sets rules that benefit its citizens, and makes all of the corporations follow those rules, then a corporation that wants to be a good corporate citizen is no longer at a competitive disadvantage.
- Government doesn’t have the money. But government’s capacity to act on citizen’s behalf is severely limited, even when the need is obvious. Government agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the IRS are so underfunded and understaffed that tax evasion schemes are rampant, costing the government billions of dollars. In addition to a lack of funding, political pressure prevents the IRS and SEC from pursuing such complicated schemes. Instead, more than half of IRS audits are directed at the little guy who “cheated” the government out of a few bucks—most often because he or she made a mistake.[Johnston, 130-138] Generally, after the mistakes are corrected, it turns out that they don’t owe anything after all. Two thirds of the time, they get a refund. [Johnston, 136] The agencies know they could be more effective, but they’re powerless to do anything about it.
- Government’s real constituents are corporations. More and more, government is serving corporations rather than citizens. Money that the government spends on research primarily benefits corporations rather than society. Corporate lobbyists write much of the legislation that gets introduced, so they include little clauses like the one in the drug reform act that denies the government the right to negotiate prices. Legislators can’t risk offending the corporations that finance their campaigns, so they can’t toughen regulations or finance regulatory agencies. Organizations like Greenpeace fight to stem the tide but, as well-meaning and hard working as they are, they can’t match the campaign contributions of a hundred corporations that profit by polluting and pillaging the environment.
- Congress isn’t listening. Congress has all but closed its ears—even when citizens express their concerns in record numbers. On a long list of issues—including health care, social security, the minimum wage, and tax cuts—Congress has frequently acted in direct opposition to wishes expressed by a vast majority of the electorate. Our political system makes it possible, because politicians aren’t truly accountable—they get away with saying one thing and doing another. They say what their constituents want to hear. They do what campaign-contributing corporations want done. (Fortunately, that is a problem that can be addressed with the Web-based system described in the next section.)
- Citizens have no voice. Citizens have virtually zero impact on corporations. Corporate decision-making systems are closed to citizen involvement. Ostensibly, citizens have the power to “vote with their pocketbook” by not buying a corporation’s goods—but it can take decades before the general population becomes aware enough and outraged enough to take action, and too much harm is done in the meantime. Citizens have a similar lack of impact on politics, because corporate influence is so strong and because there is simply no good way for the average citizen to assess the quality of their politicians. The only measure they have is popularity—so all too frequently, sound bites, political organization, and professional perception management determine the outcome of elections, rather than substantive policies.
- Citizens aren’t represented. Congress doesn’t have to be composed entirely of Green party candidates. But we certainly need a few members of Congress who represent environmental concerns. That’s the essence of representation—having someone in office who will stand up for your concerns. But the nature of our electoral system—based on single-winner geographic districts—makes it impossible to elect even one or two such representatives, because there is no single geographic district in which the Green party makes up a dominant percentage of the electorate. Because of that voting system, other “minority” voices go unrepresented, as well.
In Newsweek magazine, George T. Will argued that minority representation is unnecessary, and that the lack of minority representation is, in reality, a good thing. Here’s my Rebuttal to his arguments.
The Tip of the Iceberg
This diagram collects the issues into a single, hopefully memorable picture:
Money in Politics is the Tip of the Iceberg
The iceberg is a floating pyramid. As with the Titanic, this iceberg imperils the ship of state. The issue of money in politics is shown at the tip of the iceberg, floating above the “see” level—because the problems we citizens (the minnows) normally see are those that surround us in our environment. The corporations (whales), meanwhile, roam the seas at will, engulfing the minnows in their travels.
The Zipper Effect
There is much to be proud of in America. But the problems we’ve discussed so far aren’t going to go away. They’re getting worse, and they’ll keep on getting worse, unless and until we take action. But the problems can’t be solved independently of one another, because they result from interlocking systems.
Like a zipper, each link in the chain holds the previous link in place. The good news is that the interactions aren’t circular, with the last link in the chain held in place by the first. If they were, we wouldn’t know where to begin. But the reality is that the links interlock in a single chain, like a zipper. If we tug at that zipper, and tug hard, we can begin to unravel the chain of interlocking connections.
Here are the major links in the chain:
- Money in politics. Neither people nor government is acting as a constraint on corporations. Instead, corporations are in the driver’s seat. The requirement for massive amounts of money to win an election is an impediment to third-party candidates. It produces a Congress that only truly represents the rich. In fact, corporate money so totally controls the political process that even the “party of the people” (the Democratic Party) has been promoting corporate welfare for the past two decades.
- Citizen impotence. Public education, valuable as it is, isn’t effective as a restraint on corporations, because of the enormous time lag from the time the science is known until the public becomes informed. In elections, the public lacks choices. Once elected, legislators are pretty much free to do as they like—except on rare occasions when citizens demand government action, en masse. Even then, citizens may be treated to extensive lip service rather than real action. At best, an informed citizenry gets government action only when there is “a clear and present danger”, rather than whenever it is in the public’s long-term interests.
- Closed elections. Single-winner elections without runoffs effectively preclude third-party candidates. The election process even makes it impossible to determine how much support the candidates would have, if it weren’t for the fact that no one wants to throw away their vote. Single-winner geographic districts ensure that no third-party, minority candidate of any kind is ever elected anywhere there is a sizable population (Vermont excepted).
- Silenced minorities. The environmentally concerned, workers, and the globally conscious—along with other minorities—are frozen out of the political process. Lacking even minimal representation, there is no presence in government to initiate action on their concerns.
- Government inaction. The government is not an effective counter-balance to major corporations. In addition to weak regulations—often written by the corporations themselves—government lacks the resources to staff its agencies, largely because corporations have become so adept at evading taxes. Nor can government compete with corporate salaries. Legislators, meanwhile, are too dependent on corporate largesse to risk offending them, so there are few serious debates in the Halls of Congress.
- Weak, ineffective, yet simultaneously excessive Because those financial pressures are so severe, corporations will never restrain themselves. We therefore need an external counter-balance. But the regulations don’t seem to apply to the major corporations, who frequently act in ways that are unconscionable. Small companies, meanwhile, suffer under the burden of excessive regulation that they can’t escape, lacking the legal and financial resources necessary to find and exploit the loopholes.
- Financial death grip. Our financial systems not only encourage short-term thinking, they require it, because finance corporations have a death grip on the corporate throat, and can choke off its air supply at any given moment. Corporations, meanwhile, keep a death grip on their money, and starve government in the process. Government, corporations, and money mangers are therefore locked in a “deadly embrace” that presages a downward economic spiral—a death spiral, unless we act to intervene.
- Corporate arrogance. Corporations are driven to pursue selfish, short-term goals, to the exclusion of long-term impacts or the greater good, by their intense drive to achieve their quarterly profit goals. They even deem it admirable to avoid paying taxes, because it increases profitability—despite the harm it does to the communities that give it the workforce, transportation systems, communications systems, and consumers that are responsible for its profits. That sense of entitlement, coupled with a selfish drive for self-aggrandizement and the belief that the consumer will swallow anything (as evidenced, for example, by advertisements that legally-mandated safety devices were installed because the corporation “cares”) can only be described as corporate arrogance.
- Short-term thinking. Major corporations, at times knowingly, harm society in their quest for profit. Virtually all long-term goals are sacrificed to the need to make substantial profits now, including the potential for even greater profits that would accrue over time, were they to invest in more human-friendly, alternative technologies.
- Imperiled environment. The planet we live on is being taken apart, piece by piece, imperiling our very survival. We stand by, feeling helpless. Since we can’t do anything about it, we try not to think about it. But while putting our collective heads in the sand is comforting, it does nothing to prevent the sands from shifting beneath our feet.
- Destructive food. Metabolic poisons have been introduced into the food supply because they’re profitable. Along with other insults to the environment, these destructive foods are largely responsible for the recent epidemic of diseases.
- Poor health. As a result of their food and their environment, Americans face epidemic levels of disease, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
- Low quality of life. Health care costs and insurance costs continue to rise. As jobs migrate overseas and as unnecessary layoffs reduce the workforce, the economy is decimated and the middle class further is squeezed for longer hours and lower pay with fewer benefits. Quality of life suffers.
We need to address each of the issues, of course. They’re all important. But the most important issue of all is the one at the top of the chain—because the issue of money in politics is the one that holds all of the others in place. When we solve that problem, solutions to all of the other problems become possible. Until we solve that problem, our efforts have minimal effect. There is just nowhere to grasp the beast. It’s too big, and too slippery.
Making that change not only enables solutions to our immediate problems, it also provides for the future, making it harder for corporations to escape the governance necessary to ensure that they don’t harm society in their quest for profit.
It is apparent, then, that solving the problem of money in politics is job number one. It can be done. And working together, we will do it. That’s the subject of the next section.
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