Welcome to the Plutocracy

PlutocracyAs you may have heard, the Supreme Court yesterday ruled in McCutcheon v. FEC that wealthy individuals cannot be limited in the overall amount they can give to political candidates. The First Amendment, which last time I checked does not mention money at all, allegedly now bars any limitation on the total amount of moola that rich folks can shovel in the direction of elected officials.

The 5-to-4 decision split along political lines and overturned decades of settled law, as well as many state limits grounded in anti-corruption principles. The majority decision is rife with such broad (and utterly daffy) generalizations about the nature of speech and political life that it also makes clear that the Court is frighteningly likely, in the not-so-distant future, to strike down any kind of contribution limit.

The former aggregate contribution limit of merely $123,000 per federal election was such a drag on my own political giving, as I’m sure it was on yours. I totally had more money than that saved up to spend on every election cycle (I’ve been clipping coupons!), and I’m glad to see that all that green stuff I have laying around in piles can finally go to good use buying influence for my pet projects.

In truth, out of a country of 314 million, only 1,300 people maxed out the prior cap on political contributions in the last election cycle. What a crisis! I can see why the Supremes thought this decision was worth their time.

Of course, some of these large donors may be cursing the outcome, as their phones are already ringing off the hook, and now they won’t be able to escape pols’ persistent dial-a-thons until they’ve dished out $3.2 million, or 30 times the old limit. As Lawrence Lessig put it on Diane Rehm this morning, the decision narrowed the number of people who are at all politically relevant in the money race from the old high of a mere 120,000 people to an even smaller pool of 40,000, or about the number of people in the U.S. named Sheldon.

The Court’s majority opinion is an activist one in the classic sense, yet is oddly disingenuous about its impact on established law. The majority is also not above boot-strapping: yesterday’s decision relies on the secret flow of campaign funds created by Citizens United as a basis for taking down yet more limits, without acknowledging the situation was actually created by the Court.

And in a hypocritical break with oft-hyped principles of constitutional textualism, the Court ignored a key brief filed by Lessig that analyzed the Framer’s uses of the term “corruption,” instead delivering a decision out-of-step with the historical record. Indeed, the case is a harbinger of bad decisions to come because it signals that a key idea — that political money can create an “appearance of corruption” — has evaporated as a matter of law.

Even the dissenters appeared surprised that the Court’s official definition of political corruption now contains only outright bribery. (In fact, the erosion began when then-Solicitor General Elana Kagan threw a key case on appearance of corruption under the bus during the oral argument for Citizens United. Now the damage from abandoning a broader description for political corruption is plain.)

Still, cramped legal arguments aside, the level of cluelessness from the conservative majority about how Washington already more-or-less operates is breathtaking. What we all know in our hearts to be true is actually the case, and not just on House of Cards. To state the painfully obvious: I’ve been in a room in the Congress with a handful of big-money political donors, and seen with my own eyes how their influence is greater than that of 1000 mere voters, even when the money is merely in the background, and not on the table. These are the folks that Roberts thinks need protecting because they are despised — you know, like flag-burners and Nazis.

What he fails to acknowledge is that they are at the heart of the system, not its outskirts. The rich get different meetings, including sometimes in the Oval Office or with committee chairs, and with actual elected officials instead of staff flunkies. They get their phone calls returned, promptly. Meanwhile the rest of us, even those lucky Washingtonians who are officially designated advocates working on issues that a member of Congress or two is supposedly interested in, twiddle our thumbs, waiting around nervously for a return call like a shy schoolgirl from the 1950s.

As a 2012 brilliant TAL episode on the Washington shake-down pointed out, the open secret in Washington is that elected officials need donors more than donors (except, perhaps, the most craven ones) need them. The parties impose fundraising quotas on everyone, including specific levels of money to be raised by new members, committee chairs, and for leadership positions, and every lawmaker also must raise their own dough or look like a sitting duck. The post-Citizens United explosion in Super-PAC spending made this considerably worse — making every candidate more insecure because any one of them could face unknown amounts of last-minute spending by shadowy front groups.

Lifting the aggregate limits, as the Court just did in McCutcheon, may be even more damaging than the inevitable move to eliminate the remaining limits on direct contributions to candidates. Why? Because it substantially raises the potential value of very wealthy donors for larger groups of party electeds. The value of a donor, in the mind of every politician, is their ability to give early and often to the enterprise. Being able to turn-key a political gift to another pol through a joint fund-raising committee or other means is almost as good — and in some cases, might be even better — than collecting it for yourself, because it creates a new ally and obligation while supporting the party. Back-scratching, log-rolling, call it what you will — that’s the actual coin of the realm.

These factors also explain the inherent limits in the power of small donors under the current set of operating rules. And while the growth in smaller donors has been significant in Presidential elections, smaller gifts are harder to collect in less-publicized races. Even the recent efforts to organize smaller donations would have been unlikely to take root without many of the very reforms being struck down by the Court, reforms that, for a brief time, required political parties to look elsewhere besides to the rich and powerful for funds.

The major push for collecting political money emanates from and around Washington, not from individuals clamoring in the marketplace of ideas to be heard, as Roberts and his ilk conjure up in the opinion. When I was, briefly, a legislative director for an organization with a small PAC, I suddenly started getting voicemails from elected officials on my personal cell phone. “Hi, I’m Representative So-and-so,” they would say. “I would really love to talk with you about coming to my event next week.” After a decade of working around Washington advocating on important issues of public health, it was gratifying that actual members of Congress were now so keenly interested in my “political speech”!

I actually don’t fault politicians: it’s currently impossible to know who is really in Congress for the right reasons, because this is how we define their job. But the notion that this kind of routine exchange between two functionaries — sickening, undignified, and clearly self-interested in the narrowest sense — is about anybody’s First Amendment freedom is ludicrous. It’s a classic shake-down, often loathed by both sides, and legalized by an elaborate tap-dance that keeps everyone, barely, on the right side of what otherwise might look a lot like bribery.

Thankfully, in our own dear country (unlike in many places around the world) there is no shortage of political speech, either through money or the more traditional act of actually speaking. If anything, we talk our problems to death, until the solutions expire of boredom and inaction. Instead, the problem with the ineffectiveness of our politics has been, to mangle George Orwell, that some folks’ speech is more equal than others’.

Those who oppose change are often the ones who have the most to gain from stasis. So it makes sense that amassed wealth is inherently anti-reform, both because money represents a victory under the current rules of the game, and because the wealthy have the most — quite literally — to lose. When lawmakers’ livelihoods are roped inextricably to the continued success of the wealthy donors they must court to stay in office and keep their standing in Congress, there is little doubt that democracy has been replaced with something else, and that real change, no matter how justified, will be far harder to achieve.

It’s hard to see why a democracy captured by a few billionaires would care about the callousness of auto companies that fail to repair a defect that would have cost 90 cents per vehicle to fix and cost at least 13 people their lives, as in the recent case of the Chevy Cobalt. Or begin to address the pending catastrophe of climate change, or enact meaningful chemical reform, or do a thousand other difficult things that need to be done but impose real costs on the current economic winners in our system as it is.

Already in America, rich folks live more than a decade longer than the poor. While Roberts is waxing poetic about the First Amendment needing to pad further protections around the wealthiest .0004 percent (or 1300 out of 314 million), we must be building a movement for real and lasting change.

Although I’d been a skeptic on this strategy prior to this moment, I’m now hoping that the Court’s latest boneheaded decision will be enough to jump-start a social movement for a Constitutional Amendment clarifying that corporations really are not people and that the First Amendment doesn’t mean “freedom of money” when it clearly just says “freedom of speech.”

Without these eminently reasonable clarifications, we’ll have a Constitution and a Congress that only work for corporations and the very, very rich. While it’s a long haul to get an Amendment passed, where the Court is headed is clear. We can start to fight today, or lose our country as we know it someday soon.

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The Hollowing, and an Information Democracy

“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…”
— The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot

“A world of made is not a world of born…”
pity this busy monster, manunkind, e.e. cummings

“All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”
— A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

Sometimes trivial events are telling. I went looking for Lincoln Logs for Maya a little while ago, only to find that they are now not logs at all, but instead sad, cardboard-and-plastic affairs, with only the flimsiest relationship to the simple wooden toys of my childhood.

But the truth of what’s happened to the building blocks of our lives is far sadder than that. We make our consumption choices inside the bubble of a globalized, mass culture, on a steroid dose of marketing, with much of the information about how things are made and what they really cost us surgically removed. We can watch a video about “gangnam style” from the other side of the planet, and be exhilarated by vast quantities of information on the Interwebs and our fast life on an information highway, yet, curiously, we have no idea where most of the stuff around us comes from.

In fact, we have been carefully taught to screen out the material of our immediate world, to focus on whatever problem is assigned to us and nothing else. When we go to work, do we ask why the coffee is not organic or fair trade, or where the desks and carpets and chairs came from and what’s in them? Of course we don’t. If we go to some affair by a well-meaning charity, and the hors d’oeuvres are being passed, do we stop someone to inquire where the salmon is from, or whether the waitstaff is unionized? No, of course not. We look past the moment and write a check for social change.

This is no accident, of course. We are afraid of bringing on a confrontation, of making a fuss or asking too much. And the very purpose of the system is to keep us distracted and in the dark. Of course, there are notable and note-worthy exceptions. Students who noticed that they no longer wanted sweatshops making their university garb organized and made real progress in building a fair trade alternative. Organic foods were scarce only a decade ago and now can be found in nearly any real store. There are burgeoning movements about a new ruralism and biodynamic farming, about minimalism in consumption, and a new attention to DIY and upcycling, to slowness and conscientious choice.

These healthier signs notwithstanding, I don’t think it’s mere nostalgia about a more authentic past to suggest that we are living, today, inside an ersatz construction. Inside this simulacrum, we eat food, only to find out that it is mostly from a laboratory, rife with chemicals, gums and cheap substitutions, or from an industrial farm, and loaded with antibiotics, growth hormones, and cruelty to both farmworkers and animals. Even healthy food can now evidently be defined, as in a hotly contested government report, as containing only 50 percent of something recognizable as food (the agribusiness complex argued 50 percent was too high! In food for children!).

We buy furniture made mostly of pressboard and glue from someplace like Office Depot or Ikea, built for obsolescence and destined for a landfill rather than re-use. In fact, as you may have noticed, should some part arrive damaged, the company will ship you a whole new version of the item and won’t even bother to pick the faulty piece up — because while these items are costly, they are without any real value.

Our ‘tweens make “haul” videos of their most newly acquired pile of “fast fashion” clothes, constructed to last one season, and made somewhere else by people working (and sometimes dying) in deplorable, dangerous conditions, by suppliers that pollute the local waterways with toxic dyes and other chemicals. All of our plastics, as well as many of the chemicals and even some food additives, are actually byproducts of the petrochemical industry, thus making us pay them for the privilege of treating our bodies (and oceans) like oil company disposal facilities.

In sum, there has been an unmistakeable and steady hollowing of our lives. While the things around us look, more or less, the same as they did for our parents, with updated styling, there is far less to them in many ways — less wood, less actual food, less intention and care — and far more miles and sleight-of-hand.

The new equation combines the sped-up pace of global capital and the push to find a penny — or a fraction of a penny — from some new process, waste material or lab invention with ready markets ripe for exploitation in parts of the world that lack environmental and labor standards. We are then offered its glittering products, free of worldly taint or complex information. This is what the market wants, we are told. It’s convenient, modern, helpful — even necessary.

But is it really what we want? To be rather numb to the world immediately around us? To have the suffering of strangers quietly but insistently on the edge of our consciousness? To live inside the choices corporations have already made for us without questioning what other world there could have been?

There is, in fact, an alternative, and we already have many of the tools to make it so. We should imagine — and work to bring about — a future of radically unfettered information, and of a particular kind of augmented reality. Think a UPC code on every product, scannable with a smart phone, that brings up the full contents of what a purchase actually means for you and in the world: all of the components, environmental impacts, human health and safety issues, worker safety, life-cycle cradle-to-grave impacts, corporate policies, and even video images of the factory in which something is made, as well as maps of where it came from and how it traveled through space and time to the shelf. Nutritional or other helpful information in context with comparable items (hello, Fooducate), and even the full scoop on what the packaging is made of and its life-cycle.

This would help to foster responsibility all the way down the supply chain, and change the fundamentals of our economy to be both healthier and more sustainable. While many consumers may not care about such details, of course, enough would be impacted by the information to make better choices, and perhaps even to agitate for more accountable corporate and government policies. The agribusiness industry has fought labeling for genetically modified foods and country-of-origin labels tooth and nail for years out of just such a fear: the fear that consumers will care.

And corporations would have to compete in a world of information equality. With supply chains exposed, the quality of their goods and the ways in which they were made would be the distinguishing factors. Governments, which seem so sadly behind the pace of change and the risks, and too often end up being the keepers of corporations’ secrets thanks to outmoded policies on confidential information, could enforce existing rules far easier and dream of responding to new threats in real time.

Despite the fact that we humans have made many of the things now in our lives — we built the buildings, made the appliances, constructed the electronic gizmos and gadgetry — we have no record of what’s in our world. Instead, epidemiologists and allergists and others who study disease go on measuring things like our body burden for toxic chemicals, or the quality and contents of our water or air, and oncologists and other medical specialists go on treating the cancers we get from who-knows-what. To make connections will require rapid advances in both how the body works and what is impacting our health. This is not a medical problem or an environmental problem — it is an information problem.

Neither the government’s systems of protections nor the marketplace can function well when the signals about the differences in choices or products are so muddled. Consumers today — even ones trying to do the right thing — have to effectively get a PhD in multiple sciences, read past labels, ignore misleading greenwashing, and keep up with the latest findings from watchdog groups just to figure out which household cleaner won’t hurt their child. Better companies suffer in this environment, as their sacrifices are lost in the noise, and the engine of consumer choice cannot be harnessed as it could be to drive meaningful change.

In short, the information revolution must make transparent our lives and choices. People working on access to information and the quality of public information should be working together strategically to dismantle the barriers — including current rules about intellectual property and confidential business information, gag orders and secret settlements in court, and labeling omissions that shield hidden or vague ingredients in products and product packaging.

There is a massive agenda here for change, of course. But people working on these issues should knit them powerfully together, in the way that advocates addressing the climate crisis know that they are working on the same issue whether they are combating drilling in the Arctic or local zoning laws.

The changes wrought by open information in the political economy — both within companies and in Washington — could be profound. I humbly submit, as one who’s labored in those trenches, that these types of solutions may prove more potent than some classic “good government” proposals. Publishing more details of the appalling record on corporate lobbying, powerful as it is, often triggers cynicism and resignation among voters. It highlights a government that is remote, making decisions on high and impacted by power in ways that ordinary people cannot compete with. And the best campaign finance reforms have, sadly, been taken off-line by recent Supreme Court decisions that crippled critical aspects of their design.

If corporations are people for political purposes, as the high Court, in its limited wisdom, has prescribed, well, it seems to me a pity that they now know so much about us while we really know so little of them. Equipping consumers with actionable information on corporate accountability speaks to the choices they make every day. If accompanied by thorough reporting to government bodies, enabling them to form a more complete picture, the impact could be substantial, perhaps even transformative.

In the end, what else do we have except for what we do in the world? Making it mean something to us, all the way down, and seeing what it does mean, is a task most worthy of us, our markets, and our public institutions.

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I’ll be writing more on this subject in the coming months. Please send your ideas for posts on corporate secrecy and public access to information and the nexus to public and environmental health.

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