In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the US Supreme Court has presented the United States with an astonishing future -- one of unlimited spending on campaigns by corporations. No developed country has faced this possibility -- it is really uncharted waters, even for a political system as openly corrupt as the current one. We are facing the possibility of a true failed state, which can lose any semblance of ethics or democratic responsiveness to the public interest or good government.
In the past presidential election, the Obama ticket spent about $730 million, and the McCain ticket spent about $333 million, or $1.063 billion. The combined total was less than one month of the sales of Lipitor, a single patented pharmaceutical drug sold by Pfizer, or a little more than one percent of sales for Exxon Mobil in the 4th quarter of 2009.
The total spending on the 2006 Congressional election was $2,9 billion, less than one quarter of revenue for Haliburton, a firm heavily dependent upon government policy and contacts.
Given the benefits of "owning" shares of members of Congress, it is hard to predict the equilibrium of this market, but it certainly will involve corruption of biblical proportions, bad government decision making, and vast outlays to exercise parity with competing "investors" in influence.
Clearly there is a need for reform. The traditional civil society sector where I work is weak these days, and no one high up in the White House or the Congress seems to be breaking a sweat to fix the problem either.
One possible strategy for reform is to mobilize political support from the very entities that have created the mess in the first place -- the corporate special interests. The argument runs as follows.
While there may be short term gains in openly buying influence, the longer run scenario makes everyone worse off. Over the top corruption has hardly been good for economic development anywhere. And, when everyone can do it, the competition will drive up the price of influence, dissipating the very profits companies hope to make.
Right now the U.S.A. is the biggest profit center in the world for most companies. Can they really afford for the United States to enter a predictable slide into a third rate economic power? And how much of their quarterly profits do they want to allocate to financing television ads for politicians who rarely stay bought. Maybe as the momentous consequences of the Citizens United Decision become more obvious and concrete, Exxon, Pfizer, Disney and others will start bribing Congress and the President to put some reasonable limits on the amount of the bribes it is legal to accept -- acting not out of concern for democracy or the public interest, but for the bottom line.
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