Contaminated Money and Political Nonsense

            We’ve spoken before about separating the legitimate causes of anger from the misleading claims that threaten to wreak havoc on America. Lots of Americans are angry, about taxes, spending, jobs, prospects, or fairness to the middle-class which has been getting squeezed out. And they are right to be angry.

            The real problem is that the system, the tax code and various other subsidies are riddled with breaks for the undeserving. There are plenty of waste, earmarks and tax breaks where they don’t belong. The political system needs to be cleaned up.

             How did we get here?

             The simple answer is the campaign finance system. Campaign finance restrictions made fund-raising harder. But the harder it got, the earlier one had to start to amass the bucks necessary to run a campaign, and the more larger donations from a larger group of people became necessary. The restrictions were supposed to keep great wealth out of the system. They did no such thing. One still needs a fair amount of money to make the large contributions that the campaign finance system depends on. And there are all sorts of ways that people and corporations with money get around the restrictions.

             And what do those big donors want. Pay me back big time – with tax cuts or freedom from regulation that keeps the rest of us safe. A few campaign contributions and some inside lobbying can pay back thousands of times over. That’s why some of our largest banks paid nothing in taxes and some of our largest corporations paid less than 5% while most of us pay much more. And we end up with a tax system that hurts, and feels grossly unfair besides.

             The long term answer is public funding of campaigns. Why? Why fund the so-and-so’s? Because what they want is to stay in office. To do that, they need a lot of votes. To get the votes, they need a lot of money. And if it doesn’t come from a public campaign fund, you know where they’ll get it. We can enact all the limits and restrictions we want, but if we aren’t willing to fund the democratic process, we’ll get precisely the process we fund. 

            That’s an understanding of the problem that is shared by virtually everyone who has studied it – except those who are cozy with the pay-offs. The only way to avoid the power of money is to replace the funding; the only to avoid all the private cash and the implicit bribery is to replace it.

             The only way out of this costly morass of special interest politics is to take the big moneybags out of politics. We have to accept that political campaigns are the life blood of politics. We can either supply clean or contaminated money.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 29, 2011.

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