March 18, 2012

Your Country for a Burrito

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Seriously: the annual cost to the average American to buy the Congress of the United States outright (i.e. to cover the entire cost of every congressional race in America) is literally the price of a burrito. Being as there are more than 300 Million of us, the $2 Billion annual cost of federal elections as of 2010 is a mere $6.60 each, or well under 2 cents a day. Realizing this expenditure would eventually end both the dominance and the legal status of the criminal corruption, which we have come to accept as routine and even inevitable. As of today, I believe that the only way to reclaim our future is to get involved as individual citizens coming together to pay the trivial sums needed to cover the electoral needs of those people running for Congress who forswear all dirty, big-money contributions to their campaigns.

By comparison to that $2 Billion, we, the American people, spend:

$300 Billion a year buying electricity
$800 Billion a year buying petroleum
Over $1,000 Billion a year buying national "defense"
$2,500 Billion a year buying health care

A large fraction of these costs and many more would have been avoided by now if we had owned the Congress for the last few decades.

Our gross national product, a reasonable facsimile of our total budget, is just about $15,000 Billion a year. ($15 Trillion)

Two Billion vs. Fifteen thousand Billion. One dollar in each 7,500 which we earn each year is all it would cost for us to buy back our future.

The grand irony of the catastrophic Citizens United decision made by the five pro-corporate/anti-democracy members of our Supreme Court in early 2010, is that we too can form our own corporation to act as a clearing house for unlimited grassroots donations, which can both fund super PACs for participating candidates, and assist citizens in making direct donations to the candidacies of those same people running for office on clean money alone. We are free to play the same game as the super rich and the wealthiest corporations, but with the objective of buying democracy, instead of destroying it.

In 2004, political pundits opined that it was a miracle (because it was unprecedented in American history) that 173,000 people contributed to the presidential primary campaign of Governor Howard Dean. But that was just one in 1,800 Americans! In 2008, the Obama campaign surpassed 500,000 separate contributors, but that's still just over one in 600 of us.

The point is that we simply do not participate in this most vital and fundamental aspect of democracy, though bit-by-bit, thanks primarily to the facility of the internet, the percentage who do is increasing. Having apparently decided centuries ago that the cost of running for public office was not a public expense, we instead allowed those trivial-but-oh-so-vital costs to be paid by whatever powerful monied interests came along to fill the vacuum formed by our own sloth and ignorance. And fill it they do.

I figure that for each dollar we would spend successfully regaining control over the Congress (that's the House and the Senate), our eventual total return in financial terms alone would be between $1,000 and $2,000. This makes our failure to buy the Congress perhaps the worst case of people being penny-wise and pound-foolish in the history of our species. By my reckoning, the average American family would be something like $40,000 a year richer today, had we not been taken to the cleaners since early in the post WWII era by a whole range of vastly expensive scams designed to make a few individuals richer than God.

Our future (and indeed our present) have been systematically and efficiently pillaged. Every aspect of the making of public policy in America is influenced by the desires of non-citizen entities, most of which aren't even alive and don't actually exist in the physical universe. Our public policy is also very heavily skewed toward the desires of a remarkably tiny group of the wealthiest individuals among us. Not the 1%, rather the one tenth of 1%, or the one hundredth of 1%. Big money has already taken much of our present and our future from us, and it's up to us to set things right by re-establishing the dominance of the public in the making of public policy.

Here's how we can do it: Until now, essentially every proposed solution for establishing democracy in America (to replace today's unholy mixture of democracy and pluto-corporatocracy) has involved getting the Congress to go along with the plan. Catch 22. I call these solutions the Waiting for Godot solutions.

One day I realized that we don't need the Congress to do this. Yes, the Congress can tap into the biggest single river of money in the world — the U.S. Treasury — and our multi-national corporations can likewise tap into vast budgets to buy all manner of goodies for themselves from our government. But we? We are the source of practically every last one of those dollars. We have far more money than either the U.S. Treasury or every multi-national corporation of American origin combined. We gave them nearly every dollar they've got.

The problem with us is that we act like a vast flock of chickens with our heads cut off. With the right idea, a good plan and a little organizing, we can become an unstoppable force. And our anti-democracy enemies on Wall Street, in Washington, and in other bastions of plutocratic power know it.

Opinion in America is currently overwhelmingly (on the order of 85% or higher) that powerful monied interests have a stranglehold on our government. Disdain for the Citizens United decision is similarly widespread. Whether it's on the right or the left, We the People overwhelmingly detest the idea of our public policy being bought out from under our noses. So why should we assume that a great number of us won't voluntarily contribute to a simple, workable, inexpensive solution to this, our most central problem?

I propose that the nation's many pro-democracy organizations, together with, I would hope, some tens of millions of us, conspire to create and fund a single new organization which will function in two different ways as a clearing house for clean, grassroots money to fund candidacies for the foreseeable future, beginning with federal congressional elections. As the organization's budget allowed, it would identify congressional districts (for House races) and states (for Senate races) with contests which it could afford to fund for the next election cycle and hopefully subsequent ones as well, to give incumbents a reasonable expectation of being able to count on this funding for future races. As the budget allowed, this support would eventually grow to become available for every congressional race in the nation. After that, it could take on the presidential race and state legislative races as well.

Any demonstrably serious candidate of any party running in a selected district or state would be offered sufficient clean money for their own super PAC to cover a majority of the cost of running a strong campaign, on the condition that they commit to refusing all corporate PAC money and direct or indirect contributions larger than some low dollar amount, most likely $100.

In addition, the organization would direct a portion of its very large number of grassroots contributors directly toward the qualifying races most in need of contributions for funding the campaign's own expenditures, thus facilitating the public's ability to assure clean money candidates have the funds they need to prevail. One path for money given to a single, large fund for super PACs, and a second path for money given directly to campaigns. Each has its own advantages and I'm guessing both will be needed to make this work.

A single corporation, union or individual cannot give unlimited amounts directly to a campaign. Not yet at least. But they can now, under the law, give unlimited amounts to super PACs which support and/or oppose candidates. So our organization would fund the super PACs. But because the campaigns also require considerable budgets of their own for campaigning, clean money candidacies would need assurance of help in raising grass-roots contributions directly from citizens. Again, these direct contributions, steered by the organization to where they are most needed but given directly to the campaigns, would be limited to most likely $100 each, with the expectation that the average contribution would likely be less than half of that, with many under $10.

Over time, the trademark name and logo of the organization would come to be synonymous with more trustworthy politicking and become rather like the Underwriters Laboratories of American democracy, giving people the assurance that the portion of our elected leaders helped to win by this system can at least be trusted to create public policies which are good for the nation as a whole. The organization's web site would also provide a single, easy-to-find place for people to discover which campaigns have chosen to give themselves a black eye by avoiding the clean money option. With a fully-funded budget, every race in which the candidate opts for the clean money support could be funded. The period of transition to full funding would require prioritization according to strict rules or perhaps random selection of congressional districts within which to offer the clean money deal.

A new culture of patriotic (and self-interested) giving by millions upon millions of ordinary people each year, funding elections with no strings attached, should keep the organization in the black for as long as needed to achieve a relatively strong democracy, where legalized corruption becomes a thing of the past.

Apart from the organizational efforts and the process of getting so many of us to understand the opportunity and join in, the main obstacles that I foresee pertain to the following. The potential for unsolicited support from super PAC money being brought to bear on behalf of a candidacy without the request or approval of a candidate which otherwise qualifies for the clean money. In the case that a super PAC actually intends to support a candidate (whether with positive ads in favor of the candidate or negative ads directed at the opponent), the clean money support can be withdrawn. In the case where a super PAC instead only intends to disqualify a candidate for clean money by helping him or her, against the candidate's wishes, our organization's response would become more difficult to correctly calibrate. But the important thing to keep in mind is that spending beyond a certain level is remarkably ineffective at increasing voter support. Therefore it's better to fully fund each campaign which is even strongly suspected of being committed to clean money funding.

Indeed, it is because increasing campaign spending eventually becomes fruitless, that we can be confident that the powerful monied interests will have little success responding to our clean money by themselves spending even more, creating an acceleration of the arms race of spending in the quest for power.

The ways in which big, dirty money robs us of our desired public policy are several and include:

1) Deciding who runs for Congress, besides incumbents. The kinds of people who have been running for and serving in Congress are a long ways from being a reasonable representation of the kinds of leaders we have amongst us. The House and Senate are, for example, both populated very disproportionately with millionaire businessmen and women, while, by contrast, there is a grand total of exactly one PhD (Jerry McNerney, CA-11) among the entire 435 members of the House. At a recent reunion of my friends from high school, we had seven PhD's in a group of twenty-five people, more than 120 times the frequency of the U.S. House of Representatives. This ratio alone tells me that something is very wrong with our system of electing leaders. One of the things that made America great was our early and world-leading commitments to education. Expertise matters to good governance. Perspective and philosophy matter. Money worshippers are not somehow naturally entitled to dominate the conversations of government. Rather, we have allowed them to, so they do. Science, the arts, respect for nature, a commitment to justice, pragmatic public-spiritedness and more have gotten the short end of the stick, while exploitation, unethical business practices, war profiteering, and corporate power have boomed. Many of those in Congress are remarkably heroic, public-spirited people, who really do their best for the American people and especially for their constituents. But there are far fewer of them than we need.

2) Deciding whose campaign for Congress is well- and easily funded and therefore more likely to be successful. Incumbent members of the House who rely on small contributions reportedly need to spend twenty hours a week whenever they are in Washington making phone calls to supporters asking for money! I spoke to one member and he confirmed that this number was correct in his experience. Imagine how much easier it is for the members who get their needed campaign cash from a handful of powerful monied interests? How disgusting is it that we make the people whom we wish to represent our interests in a job that's purely a public duty come begging for money for campaign advertising, as though being a member of Congress were a prize which we intended should enrich them personally? The costs of running for public office are a public expense!!

3) Compelling allegiance to powerful monied interests, which are lobbying for their legislative causes via the promise to financially support or oppose their next campaign. So you're a member of the House. A lobbyist for the giant corporation who's been subjugating America's farmers for a living visits your office to argue for their position in an upcoming farm bill. He makes it clear that they will support your opponent with a large contribution during the next election if you don't vote with them, but they'll give your campaign the cash if you side with them. It's legal bribery which works all-too-well, even among some of the members who are not fanatically pro-corporate by nature. The non-ideological representatives only need to be freed by a solid, reliable, convenient, and adequate source of grassroots funding to reliably vote objectively, to the best of their ability, without fear of worsening their prospects for re-election. The revolving door of highly-paid lobbying also threatens the integrity of Congress by promising lavish compensation for insider access by prior lawmakers (and their aids) hired upon their retirement from public service.

Beyond this, the river of green which descends on the capitol corrupts the most vital process of writing the regulations which actually implement the laws passed by Congress. It also sometimes successfully interferes with the enforcement of those same regulations by the Executive branch.

If a high enough percentage of the Congress worked for us, the problem of the regulations would be addressed. We could also extend our financial support to cover the presidential races, and thereby help to fight the tendency for big money to buy big favors from small Presidents. This would drive up the average annual cost per American to approximately that of a burrito with guacamole included.

There are hundreds of billions of dollars to be made by polluting, starting wars, getting our children addicted to nicotine, and a thousand other legal crimes. Few of us clearly see the wealth that we never got because it was taken before it could come our way. Good public policy is our only recourse.

By my estimates, in the prior Congress, the 111th, 53% of both the Senate and the House were with the American people on the biggest issues, and 47% were with the powerful monied interests affected by those issues. In the current Congress it's more like 48% are on our side. Prior to the turn of the century, I think we had closer to 60% on our side. Regardless of the current percentage, to accomplish almost anything, we need more than 60%. To really flourish, we probably need 70% or more working for us. Reaching that point will undoubtedly take several election cycles, but we have no choice. From the beginning of the nation, there have been those in power who self-servingly believed that those who owned the nation should run it. Perhaps we've never experienced a truly uncorrupted political process on the national level in the U.S. In the past, the damage that institutionalized crime could wreak on the future paled to what is being done today, as the biosphere itself is under unprecedented assault. The stakes are higher than ever, so we can't afford to sit this out.

Thanks to the remarkably low price tag, we can do tremendous good with as few at 1 in 10 American's giving as little as $30 a year to this effort. I think, despite its novelty, this is something we can do with both hands tied behind our back.


1) We allow the Congress be for sale

2) We fail to realize how incredibly cheap the cost of buying it is

3) We fail to buy it, and thus allow our future to be systematically pillaged.

Staying informed, voting, writing letters to Congress, and ensuring no-strings-attached funding of congressional elections are all vital and fundamental parts of being citizens of a free country. Vigilance is indeed the price of liberty — and of the prosperity of the nation.

Let's figure out how to do this, and take our country back from the powerful monied interests who've now crafted so much of our public policy to their financial advantage. Once we're successful, the Congress can pass the real campaign finance laws we've always needed, though perhaps not until after we get the Supreme Court back, as we inexorably would. We can clean up State and local elections the same way, if we only decide to do so together.

Everything that most of us care about is at stake.

—Joseph Holmes

More reading: Holmes interview: Lawrence Lessig interview:
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Lawrence Lessig's recent book: Republic, Lost: