12/05/2012 03:37 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

Campaign Finance -- Solved!

In addition to trying to calculate the amount of time needed to achieve sufficiency with regard to critical thinking knowledge and skill, I've also been curious about how to calculate the cost of not doing so.

And because the Critical Voter curriculum focuses on the recently completed U.S. election, a number that jumped out as worthy of analysis was $2.6 billion. For that is the combined sum both presidential candidates (and associated direct and indirect support organizations) spent trying to get their man into the White House.

Now no one in his or her right mind would spend over a billion to win an election unless the value of victory was much higher than that, which in the case of winning the presidency includes influence over trillions in spending (not to mention the other extraordinary powers and perks of office).

Hollywood movies tend to make news when their budgets break through to previously unheard-of levels, at which point that extraordinary number becomes the new normal. For example, take Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1993 Last Action Hero (please) which was the first film to crack the $100 million mark, after which any film costing under a hundred million was no longer considered worthy of being called a "blockbuster."

In a similar fashion (and despite countless efforts to "get money out of politics"), somehow the candidates managed to reach a new record of $1+ billion each which we can now assume to be the spending floor for the next presidential race.

It may be that previous efforts to reform the system simply failed to apply the right regulatory, legislative or judicial formula to ensure vast sums don't flood the political marketplace, and with a little more cleverness and will we can get the formula right sometime during the next four years. Or perhaps new shaming rituals can be devised (possibly facilitated through the Internet) that will cause candidates to stop taking the millions upon millions of dollars constantly being offered them.

But given that each attempt to regulate campaign spending simply creates incentives for new inventive ways to drive donations higher and higher (and given that most of us demonstrate a tendency to want to shame our political opponents while ignoring -- or even celebrating -- the fund raising creativity of those we support), perhaps we need to look elsewhere for a solution to the dilemma of dollars driving out ideas in politics.

One place to look is at where those billions of dollars are being spent. And by any measure, a bulk of those funds are being put into political advertising; especially expensive video ads (which now flood not just our TVs, but also our computers, tablets and phones) designed to persuade the public.

But what if this public had obtained sufficient understanding of the tools of persuasion to know what the persuaders are doing? In other words, what if we the people possessed the critical thinking skills required to see through efforts to manipulate us?

After all, the techniques persuaders use to push us this way or that are neither mystical nor esoteric. In fact, a quick browse through job listings for political ad agencies indicates that most people working in this field have no more education than most of the people reading this piece.

And regardless of what degree you possess (or whether or not you even went to college), as the Critical Voter experiment demonstrates, anyone (including my eighth grade son) can -- in less than eight hours -- learn what is needed to avoiding falling for the tricks these persuaders use against us.

Even if you pursue other methods for learning this material (such as taking a course, reading a book, or studying independently), the most expensive of these would barely represent a rounding error compared to the cost of making a bad decision in your life (never mind the billions or trillions associated with not thinking critically about a U.S. election).

As I mentioned during the last Critical Voter podcast, while the cost of learning these vital skills is zero (or close to zero), there is a price to pay in terms of putting these skills to work and using the tools of critical thinking to challenge your own biases (rather than just subject your opponent's views to scrutiny). But these steps should also be considered a small price to pay, especially given that they are central to becoming an independent and truly free critical thinker.

And if enough of us can learn these skills and put them to work, then our campaign finance problems are solved! For who but a fool would donate, raise or spend millions or billions on ads that no longer work on a public that took the cost-free option of learning to think for ourselves?