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Corruption reform

Conservatives and Liberals are being pitted against one another by corruption that thrives on loopholes that stay open as long as the people are distracted with vitriolic rhetoric.  Conservatives warn that liberal ideas taken too far lead to Socialism.  Liberals warn that conservative ideas taken too far lead to Nazism.  But both sides are ignoring the “taken too far” part.  Things only go “too far” when too much money is poured into the political process and issues and suspicions and accusations are fed like a wildfire.

Campaign reform never seems to get anywhere in Congress because too many members of Congress are beholden to the moneyed interests who are ruining the campaign process.  So it is up to the people to say enough it enough.

Some have pointed to the Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow corporations unlimited campaign contributions as the fox moving into the henhouse.  There is a move afoot to repeal that decision by getting Congress to pass an amendment to the Constitution stating corporations do not have citizenship and therefore do not get the rights of citizens in the political process.  The Supreme Court’s decision was based on an earlier tax finding that corporations can treat certain income the same way as individuals.  That’s fine.  No one has a problem with fine tuning the tax code in ways that make sense.  But extending that rule to say corporations should have every other right of an individual citizen, including political rights, is going “too far” to the right. 

Every dictator in history has held onto power by directing public tax money to wealthy business supporters who then enforce and otherwise influence the populace to not revolt against the dictator.  Thankfully we don’t have a dictatorial government.  And thankfully we are seeing dictators around the world pulled down off their thrones.  But we can still fall into this same pattern.  Substitute “Aristocracy” for “Dictator” and the scenario becomes not only plausible but likely.

At this point my conservative brethren will throw up their hands and accuse me of fomenting “Class warfare.”  Not at all.  Businesses do hire the populace.  People who work hard should be rewarded with better lives.  Capitalism works and market forces should be allowed to control economic trends.  Lopsided wealth distributions are naturally occurring and cannot be “evened out.” 

But corruption is corruption.  It is corruption when a multinational corporation only gets that big because of unfairnesses it has bought from its government.  It is corruption when that same corporation buys laws that allow it to export jobs, slash benefits, save money with substandard products and otherwise enrich itself at the expense of its own workers and the public.  It is corruption when that same corporation hides behind campaigns of false information it has created, and shields itself from scrutiny and change by buying politicians.

And most importantly, it is corruption that feeds the noise that keeps us from seeing the corruption for what it is.  The Supreme Court’s decision legitimizes corruption by renaming it citizen’s rights.

Arianna Huffington recently published an essay where she quoted Robert Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford University.  He has coined a term Agnotology which means the study of ignorance that is deliberately manufactured or politically or culturally generated. “People always assume that if someone doesn’t know something, it’s because they haven’t paid attention or haven’t yet figured it out,” Proctor says. “But ignorance also comes from people literally suppressing truth — or drowning it out — or trying to make it so confusing that people stop caring about what’s true and what’s not.”

I believe in the liberating power of calling things by their proper names.  It seems Proctor has renamed a very old concept: propaganda.  Yes, that’s an ugly word.  Here’s another one: indoctrination.  Even better: brainwashing.  If you bury the population with misinformation and cut off any sign of positive change, you accomplish a lowering of everyone’s expectations.  You can keep squeezing and robbing and people come to think it’s normal. 

The Constitutional amendment would be a good first step.  Passing laws that restrict lobbying would be helpful too.  But what campaign reform really needs is teeth.  If we are going to call corruption by its real name, then let us proclaim how bad it is to the public good. Violations of election and campaign laws should be enforced as treason, and prosecuted as capital offenses.  Donations to political campaigns should be limited only to those entities who can vote in those elections.  This not only cuts out PACs, corporations and unions, it also limits outside influences in local elections. The government should encourage people to participate in the election process, so campaign contributions should be tax deductable, but only up to a certain dollar amount, say $1,000.  Bigger contributions should be allowed, but on the individual’s dime.  And all political contributions must be contemporaneously made public.

The Founding Fathers knew the corrupting power big money can have over government.  They had seen wars fought by the crowns of Europe entirely for the benefit of the rich who supported them.  They gave us “One man, one vote” to level that playing field.  They also wrote extensively on how important it was for the populace to remain informed, and vigilant.  They envisioned a government by, for and of the people that would act against the kinds of big money corruption that had poisoned Europe.  They also gave us a government designed to allow everyone who works hard to live better.  Somewhere along the way, the freedom to excel became a mask for the corruption we are supposed to restrain. 

Maybe they didn’t see it coming because America was young and most of the corrupting money in Europe was old and inherited.  Growing your own fortune in America just didn’t look like it would lead to buying and selling the government.  But now, two hundred years later, most of the wealth in our country is inherited.  The top 1% of our citizens own not only 90% of the wealth, but they control 90% of our nation’s means of production, the ability to create more wealth.  We do have an aristocracy.  Denying that fact won’t improve your chances of becoming a multimillionaire.

So if this effort is to have any chance of success, if we are to save our democracy, we need to control the conversation.  It isn’t campaign reform, it is corruption reform.  And it isn’t targeting some theoretical, invisible enemy; it is targeting a very real, very present threat to our free society.

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Categories: Politics
  1. Steve Price
    February 28, 2011 at 6:19 am

    Jay. I agree with most of what you wrote, except the part at the end about the leaders of the early republic not foreseeing big money corruption of the government. From the history I’ve read, people like Alexander Hamilton and his investor class buddies were neck deep in financial scandal. One of their most infamous swindles was to hold up the repayment of IOUs to officers of the US Army who had won the Revolution and who were owed several years of back pay. Hamilton’s banking friends bought up the IOUs from veterans who were desperate for cash to restart civilian lives, and who were lead to believe Congress would not pay them for years and souls only pay a fraction of the IOUs value. Once most of the IOUs were in the hands of Hamilton’s friends, he encouraged Congress to pay the IOUs off at 100 cents per dollar. The Whiskey Rebellion was, in part, a reaction to Hamilton’s plans to favor Big Business, Big Manufacturing, and Big Finance over community based economies and craftsmanship of the type Jefferson favored. So financial improprieties in high places was a part of the earliest governance in the USA.

  2. March 1, 2011 at 3:01 am

    Indeed corruption has been around forever. Too bad the Founding Fathers didn’t give us better tools to deal with it. OTOH, the best tool for handing corruption seems to be a backbone. Here is what Andrew Jackson had to say to a bunch of powerful bankers who were trying to get away with a scam not unlike the one we face today.

    “Gentlemen, I have had men watching you for a long time, and I am convinced that you have used the funds of the bank to speculate in the breadstuffs of the country. When you won, you divided the profits amongst you, and when you lost, you charged it to the bank. You tell me that if I take the deposits from the bank and annul its charter, I shall ruin ten thousand families. That may be true, gentlemen, but that is your sin! Should I let you go on, you will ruin fifty thousand families, and that would be my sin! You are a den of vipers and thieves. I intend to rout you out, and by the eternal God, I will rout you out.”

    http://kenhirsch.net/money/AndrewJacksonAndTheBankHenkels.pdf

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