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The Price of Democracy

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We pay a lot of money for health care in the United States, more per capita than anywhere else in the industrialized world. If you point out this inescapable fact to opponents of socialized medicine, they invariably respond that we get high-quality care in return. Exasperated, you might go further and say that spending nearly $8,000 a year per capita still leaves us with the 8th-lowest average life expectancy among OECD countries, that the Japanese spend $5,000 less per person per year and live longer. But rich foreigners flock to the United States for operations, your interlocutor insists, so clearly we get what we pay for. The uninsured, alas, would agree with this grim assessment – since they have little to no money, they get little to no care.

Americans also spend more per capita on the military than any other industrialized country (the United Arab Emirates, with a population of only 7 million people, is the only country with a higher rate). The Pentagon and its clients boast that all this money is well spent, that no country comes close to us in terms of quality or quantity of security. Critics, meanwhile, decry the waste, the cost overruns, the systems that work poorly (the F-35) or will never work (missile defense), and of course the enormous opportunity costs.

On health care and the military budget, no one can dispute that the United States spends exorbitantly. Whether we get our money’s worth is a matter of considerable debate.

But there is one arena in which the United States is a world-class spender where you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would argue that we get world-class results for our money. I’m talking about our electoral system, which has produced a legislature that attracted a historic low of 10 percent public approval this year, an administration still beholden to Wall Street and the military industrial complex, and (indirectly) a Supreme Court that tilts  so far to the right that I’m surprised the building itself hasn’t fallen over.

The presidential candidates spent, for instance, over $1.3 billion on the 2008 campaign, a record. The election cycle in 2008 cost more than $5 billion, including congressional races and the primaries. We spent, in other words, about $17 per capita for our last big elections. Sound like a bargain?

Over the border, Canadians spent about $12 per capita for the last election. Australians spent about $7 per person in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Cambodians spent over $45 per person in their first democratic election in 1993, but had brought the cost down considerably to only $2 a person by 2003.

These per-capita figures run the risk of apple-orange comparisons, since countries have very different financing for elections. In the United States, as in Australia and the United Kingdom, private donors dominate. In Sweden and Mexico, on the other hand, public financing is the norm.

But the overall point holds: we spend lavishly on elections, much of it on campaign ads. Politics is not a game for the faint of wallet. Nearly half of our members of Congress are millionaires. These elected officials spend 30-70 percent of their time fundraising, and they are highly, shall we say, responsive when Big Money talks. Indeed, lobbying brings in one of the best returns on investment. In a recent This American Life episode, a tax professor estimated what one dollar of lobbying netted on the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, which provided tax breaks to multinational corporations repatriating their profits. Bernie Madoff offered 10-percent return on investment. These lobbyists got 22,000-percent return. The former went to jail, the latter went to the bank, and we the people were taken to the cleaners.

You’d think that the best political minds of our generation would be focused on how to reduce the hold that money has over our democracy. True, we’ve had various waves of campaign finance reform, culminating in the McCain-Feingold legislation of 2002. But the cost of campaigning continues to rise. It’s quite counterintuitive, then, that we recently changed the rules of the game so that we can pump even more hundreds of millions of dollars into politics.

Actually, “we” is a misnomer. As Jeffrey Toobin points out in The New Yorker, the decision to overturn campaign finance reform in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision was largely the work of one man: Chief Justice John Roberts.

The Citizens United case should have been focused narrowly on one provision of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law that prohibited private funding of TV and radio ads about candidates within a certain period before elections. Citizens United produced a documentary slamming Hillary Clinton and planned to show it in the run-up to the 2008 elections. Blocked from broadcasting the documentary during that defined pre-election period, Citizens United took the case to court.

Roberts and his conservative cohort on the Court saw an opportunity to interpret the First Amendment on free speech in such a way to open the floodgates for political contributions. The Court determined in its 5-4 decision that corporations and individuals enjoyed equal rights to free speech and so corporate entities should not be restricted in their campaign contributions. The Bill of Rights doesn’t, of course, mention corporations at all. It talks about the “people,” about soldiers and “the accused,” about the federal government and the states. To argue that the First Amendment’s provision that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” applies to corporations making campaign contributions is as absurd as asserting that buying a nuclear weapon is protected by the Bill of Rights (I’m just waiting for the NRA to make this argument).

“The Roberts Court,” Toobin concludes, “will guarantee moneyed interests the freedom to raise and spend any amount, from any source, at any time, in order to win elections.”

As a result of the Citizens United decision, political campaigns don’t have to disclose the identity of their contributors.  “Citizens United created an environment in which it is perfectly legal for a shell non-profit corporation to engage in election-related spending on behalf of a hidden interest,” writes Lisa Rosenberg of the Sunlight Foundation. “And there is nothing to ensure that the hidden interest is not a foreign national, a foreign company or a foreign government.” U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies can already establish political action committees, and their contribution levels have been rising. Now, foreign entities have additional ways of illegally masking their influence on American politics.

It would be useful to have a watchdog within Congress who represented the public interest against the moneyed elite. But politicians are simply too busy trying to get reelected to scrutinize the money flow.

Imagine, however, if we had 535 William Proxmires in Washington. Proxmire was the legendary skinflint from Wisconsin. In its obituary for the senator when he died in 2005 at the age of 90, The Washington Times wrote that Proxmire “said most senators could get re-elected without spending a penny, but he didn’t take the chance — in his last election, he spent $145.10, down from the $178.75 he lavished on his previous bid. Much of it went for postage to return campaign contributions, which he did not accept. Proxmire preferred the cheapest kind of politicking: He would shake hands till his hands bled, then start again the next day with bandaged hands.”

The Citizens United decision ensures that any potential Proxmire will not have the remotest chance of getting elected – not on less than $200 in campaign funds.

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