Saturday, June 05, 2004

Redrawing Democracy: Harnessing Capitalism

Skip to the conclusion if you want a quick summary of what this document contains.

If there's one thing most people agree upon, its that our politics has been corrupted by people with lots of money. Elections are largely decided by the economic control of mass media; he who buys the most television hours tends to win. He who fails to buy any is unheard of, and never even makes the nomination. Many politicians, in response to the fact that everybody knows our politics are corrupted by the flow of money through it, call for reforms in “campaign finance,” but they don't follow through with it. Some don't vote for it on principle, saying that “campaign finance reform” is just a sneaky way to deny speech rights to people the campaign finance reformers don't like. Others don't vote for it because it is generally only necessary to make a speech to get people to believe he is for a particular issue; few check vote records. Ultimately, it is because they are dependent upon this system; it's what got them elected in the first place.

Personally, I think that so long as we allow economic inequalities (and I think an attempt to remove economic inequalities only results in other, more sinister forms of inequality), our campaigns are inevitably going to be influenced by the money necessary to control mass media. Wherever it is possible, people with an opportunity for power are typically going to take it. People with money can pay for pamphlets, air time, a network of professional door-to-door advertisers—they can get the word out. People who wish to serve in public office can dramatically increase their chances of being elected by tapping these resources. One can make some speeches to the public about issues they care about, then do favors for the people who paid for the campaign. George W. Bush is doing it now, and elected members of our government that came before him (Republican and Democrat) have done it too.

It's even worse when a large portion of the economy is dominated by government spending. Most of the big companies have some sort of tie to our government through military contracts. These companies then hire lobbyists and contribute to campaigns, which ensures that government spending remains where it is, if not increasing. Thus, they ensure that they make even greater profits. This money can then be used to influence the politicians, gaining the companies more contracts, in a spiral of money, most of which comes not from these companies, but from the rest of the economy through taxation. Very simply put, in a roundabout way, much of the special interest money that goes to corrupt our government was originally tax money.

However, I do not believe that campaign finance reform is the answer. I think that the “free speech” argument is right. The simple fact is that people have a right to have their voice heard, to communicate in whatever fashion they see fit. If they just happen to have enough money to ensure that many more people see their communications than if they had less money, so be it. We live in a capitalist democracy, and the only way to reduce the influence of the rich is to reduce the rich. Make “campaign finance” illegal, and you only exclude the honest financiers. Those that want to buy campaigns will find a way of doing it.

Personally, I think that the problem isn't the money, but the dishonesty that accompanies it. Politicians need votes to get elected. In order to get those votes, they have to say things that people want to hear concerning what they will do if elected, what they believe, their values—and they need to be heard saying it. In order to be heard, they need money to spend on air time. In order to get money, they need to say what the people that have money want to hear. Often, these things are not the same as what is said to the people who provide the votes. So, in order to get elected, they generally have to lie to somebody. Once a person has rationalized such systematic lying, what other forms of dishonesty are they capable of? I am reminded of a movie entitled Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which a politician who is known for honest and compassionate representation turns out to be little more than a stooge to a Tammany Hall style political machine.

Once in office, politicians must take great care not to offend the national news media. Many politicians have had their careers ruined by national networks providing continual, non-stop coverage of some blunder they have made. At the same time, a politician's career can be made by continual, non-stop coverage and interpretation of their better actions. Two presidents, for example, can perform the same action: a bombing that results in the deaths of many civilians. The media's attitude toward that president decides how people see it. For presidents they don't like, it is a horrible atrocity, focused upon exclusively about every five minutes. For presidents they do like, it is downplayed as “collateral damage,” when it's mentioned at all, at this. Then, when victory is achieved, pictures of people dancing in the streets are shown. If they don't like the president, pictures of the wounded and protesters are shown. There is a wealth of pictures on all sides of any issue, and by picking and choosing the images, the national news media can influence almost totally the way people perceive the issue, and how they perceive any politician who could possibly be connected with it.

Ultimately, our politicians must contend with conflicting loyalties involved in getting elected and trying to stay that way. They must say what the people want to hear, what their contributors want to hear, and what the people who—through corporate ownerships—control the national media, want to hear. Ultimately, all they have to do, so long as they have the media on their side, is say what the people want to hear; they don't necessarily have to actually do anything about it. It isn't the money, it's the system. There are probably plenty of politicians who start out trying to do their job honestly, but the honest men are ultimately either corrupted or removed from office. The few who have a constituency that allows them to serve honestly (I'd be hard pressed to identify such a place) are very few, and numerically irrelevant where national politics are concerned.

You can't keep the money out of politics. Money is just our way of expressing the influence that comes from a contribution to a process, and taking the money out will simply result in a more direct bartering of services, off the record. No, we need not to remove the money, but to channel it in a more constructive way. My suggestion is that, rather than piling meaningless law upon meaningless law trying to pretend that our legislature is not influenced by the money that goes into its election, we instead go the other direction entirely. I suggest we literally sell one house in a bicameral legislature.

What I mean is this. Assuming we're doing this U.S. Senate style (this system is applicable to any bicameral legislature), over the course of two years, people would buy “shares” in the Senate. At the time of the election, these contributors would vote for the Senate much like shareholders vote for corporate officers. Their votes would be weighted by the amount of contribution made by the voter. Anybody who wished to contribute could do so. (I would go so far as to permit non-citizens and representatives of foreign governments to contribute.)

I would also abolish internal taxation at the federal level. This would remove the “prize” that can be won though the purchasing of elections. The government would have only the revenues made from these sales, and from tariff collection. I would hope that between a genuine desire of some to contribute to the upholding of justice and liberty, and the desire of special interest groups (everything from military supply companies, to labor unions, to environmental lobbies, and state governments) to dominate policymaking, that the government would have sufficient funds to uphold liberty and justice. At present, I think our government has far more than it needs for this, and that much of it goes against the common good, both in this country, and in many others.

First off, it would end the requirement that people with money engage in dirty dealing to protect their position from a government that would gladly steal from them if it could. No longer would they have to corrupt potentially honest men. Now they could simply hire somebody to represent their interests openly and honestly. With the influence of the wealthy concentrated in the Senate, those who wish to represent the interests of the people likely could do so without having to worry quite as much about being undercut by a less honest, but better funded politician. Those who would represent moneyed interests could do so openly and honestly, as well.

Secondly, it would divert a great deal of the money that would go to the national media under our current system. Making the media more dependent upon their customers, rather than the other way around, seems like a very good thing to me. There has been a lot of media consolidation going on in recent years. Control of the minds of the people who rely upon the media for their information is the product of a media corporation that determines most of what people see and hear. This is not a product conducive to liberty. There is little doubt in my mind that most of the news we get, the commercials we see, even many of the television shows we see are designed to create an electorate which doesn't know any better than to support those the media wishes to be supported. If the money went directly to the government, rather than enriching the major media corporations, we just might see a return to a more competitive, perhaps even a more honest, national mass media.

Finally, taking direct taxation out of the hands of the federal government would re-empower the states to enact their own local efforts. At present, the fact that the federal government takes a much larger share of the potential tax dollars in this country means that the states are reliant upon federal spending for their own revenues. Any time the federal government wants something done that it doesn't have the authority to do, it simply threatens to revoke funding for whatever state project is related if the state doesn't adopt a law having the effect the federal government would like to create. The result of this sort of thing was the nationally mandated speed limit that was in place years ago, and nationally mandated “abstinence only” sexual education at public schools (a policy which causes my home state, California, to simply give up the related federal funding).

Finally, the money that went in would be the money that came out. Election manipulation would no longer be a way to make a profit. Only those providing genuinely necessary services could expect to come out ahead of where they began.

The first thing many would say about this proposal is that it would result in handing the government over to moneyed interests. I remind them of 2 things. First off, moneyed interests already have an indeterminable amount of influence over our government. At least under this system, we would know exactly how much influence they have, measurable in dollars and cents. The second thing is that this system only sells half of the legislature. The people would still have the House of Representatives and, if anything, the easy, public, and honest access of money to the Senate would end up diverting some money away from the popular elections, resulting in a purer representation on that side, as well.

In conclusion, my proposal is to remove the authority for direct taxation from the federal government, and have representation in the Senate be directly connected to voluntary contribution to the treasury of the federal government. This would result in the honest representation of moneyed interests in the Senate, and the honest representation of popular interests in the House of Representatives. It would also result in taking Big Media out of the loop, reducing it, once again, to an outlet for ideas, rather than a creator. It just might return this land to freedom.

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