04/15/2008 04:48 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

American Airlines and American Plutocracy

Travelers who just suffered from the cancellations of thousands of flights, their families and friends, and anyone who plans to travel by air should pay attention to the ways elections are financed in the United States. Most voters consider this a boring subject; they get a much greater rise out of debating the war in Iraq, the economy, health care and other such "substantive" issues. The ways elections are conducted is considered by the majority of the public a dull, "process" issue.

The fact is that as long as we allow those with deep pockets to have a great influence over Congressional elections as well as presidential ones, and allow those industries that are supposed to be regulated to offer high paying jobs to those who are supposed to regulate them, we shall have
the kind of safety scares and unneeded suffering many thousands of Americans just experienced.

The story line is basically as follows. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in charge of ensuring that airlines maintain safe airplanes. However, the FAA's staff includes key people who have worked for, will work for, or are otherwise are close to the airline industry. So are those who appoint the upper level officials. Hence, the FAA has not only allowed airlines to outsource maintenance to cheap, unreliable and poorly supervised labor overseas, but it has allowed for Southwest Airlines to fly planes that failed inspection.

The FAA would have continued merrily to accommodate the airlines' interests and make short those of the flying public if the media did happen to reveal the troubles at Southwest. Once under the glare of public attention, the FAA panicked and jerked its joy stick all the way in the opposite direction, demanding here and now inspections of thousand of airplanes -- instead of phasing these in a few score at a time, over a few weeks -- thus engendering a grand mess.

You can, however, bet your next airline ticket and then some that nothing will change in the longer run, by which I mean weeks and months, and surely years. Once the public becomes preoccupied with the next scandal--and there always is one, whether sexual or financial or both--the FAA and the airlines will return to business as usual. Airlines will continue to outsource maintenance; they will continue to fly very close to bankruptcy (if not in it) and hence cut all services, including those concerning safety. The FAA's key staff members will continue to expect to work at lucrative jobs in the airlines once they quit government service, and those who appoint them will continue to be indebted to the deep pockets that pay for the lion's share of their election campaigns. The same holds for all the other regulatory bodies, including those that are entrusted with ensuring consumer safety: the safety of medications and of nuclear plants, and well as the integrity of the financial markets.

Both McCain and Obama pointed to what must be done. Both committed themselves to draw on public funds for their presidential campaigns and limit the private funds they can draw on. Now Obama seems to be reneging on this commitment. Few people care, both because he otherwise rocks, and because campaign financing is such a dull, "process" subject.

Wait a moment, you may say, Obama's main contributions come in small amounts from people like you and me who do not have deep pockets. If we could make this way of raising money into a law, banning contributions largely than say 100 dollars, we would indeed have a much less corrupt political system. However, as long as this matter is left to each to decide as they please, McCain will accept large contributions, and Obama will have no choice but to follow. The amounts need for general elections are so huge, that one cannot rely just on the small donations of individuals if McCain does not. And even if McCain and Obama miraculously run a clean campaign, there is the matter of the way in which members of Congress are elected, which are much tilted by great pools of private monies.

In short, the dangerous and tedious mess in the airports is sending a loud and clear signal: If we cannot reduce the role of deep pockets in our Congressional and presidential elections, we cannot expect safe airplanes, drugs, reactors or most anything else.

Some argue that there is just no way to prevent deep pockets from playing a key role in elections and garnering great influence over those who are elected. However, if these skeptics will take a few minutes and study the ways elections are conducted in the UK and even in near by Canada, they will see that although one cannot gain a squeaky clean system, one can vastly reduce the political power of well heeled interest groups, trade associations, corporations, and the rich.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and the author of Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy. For more on the subject, visit He can be contacted at