Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

14 January 2014

The Awful Arithmetic of Citizens United


Let’s be frank. I’m not a mover or a shaker. I’m a blogger and a reclusive, retired law professor with an upper-middle-class lifestyle. Our nation has millions of people much like me.

Yet two United States senators have called me personally. One went so far as to start leaving a message on our answering machine. We have caller ID, and we screen all our calls. When I heard the words “this is Senator Jeff Merkley” over the loudspeaker, I picked up.

Senator Merkley hails from Oregon. I’ve never lived there. Although I admire him, I’m not his constituent. Yet he called me personally and spent about seven minutes on the phone with me.

Why? His call wasn’t to discuss this blog or to ask my opinion. It was to ask for money.

The reason for personal calls is obvious. As a recent and sometimes enthusiastic political donor, I get ten to twenty e-mails per day asking for money.

So if a pol wants to rise above the noise level in my life, nothing beats a personal phone call. If I pick up the phone and talk with a United States senator in whose work and mission I believe, I can hardly put the phone down without ponying up, unless I’m flat broke.

The other senator to call me personally was Sherrod Brown of Ohio. I was then a resident of his state. He spoke to me for about ten minutes, while I told him some of my ideas about energy.

He listened patiently. How could he not, while asking for money? Good pols are people people and have lots of patience. Both Brown and Merkley are good pols. I did my best not to try their patience, but their calls still took time.

Now let’s do some numbers. Ohio’s population is about eleven million. Let’s say Senator Brown wanted to contact just 2% of it. That’s 220,0000 people. At ten minutes a shot, that’s 2,200,000 minutes.

It may surprise you to know that there are only 60 x 24 x 365 = 525,600 minutes in a year. So Senator Brown would have to spend over four full years on the phone just to reach his 2% contact goal. He would have to spend two-thirds of a full Senate term doing nothing but begging for bucks to finance propaganda. And that’s without sleeping, eating or even stopping to pee.

I won’t do the numbers for Senator Merkley. Oregon has a smaller population than Ohio, but Senator Merkley was calling me in New Mexico. His audience for solicitation was obviously a lot bigger than his constituency.

I suspect that Senator Merkley’s audience, like Senator Brown’s, is limited only by his endurance. When Senator Brown spoke with me, his voice was already hoarse.

What does all this mean for life in America? Four things.

First of all, there is time management. Pols are gregarious people, and they are constantly sought after. They are virtually never alone, at least during waking hours. When do they have time to think?

My impression is virtually never. Citizens United has made personal fund raising not just the first priority, but a matter of political survival. Next come meetings with staff and consultants. Third comes plotting and planning with one’s own caucus and party leaders. Thinking about policy and making deals with the opposition come dead last.

No wonder political posturing has replaced deal making! It takes a lot less time.

The second effect of Citizens United on American politics is to obsess about a single issue. People like me can give a few hundred dollars to candidates for Congress, more in presidential races. People like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers can give millions, or ten thousand times as much.

There’s some arithmetic there, too. If pols spend minutes with me, they can spend days with the big donors and not bust their fund-raising schedule.

In practice, they probably don’t. They don’t have to. According to people who have studied the matter, most big donors from the business world don’t care much for the Tea Party or its extreme right-wing agenda. How could they? They are smart people, or they wouldn’t be rich (or stay rich); and they aren’t all from the South.

What they care about is taxes. The money they donate to pols is not, in their minds, a political contribution. It’s a business investment. If their donation helps cut taxes (or regulation), it can save them millions or billions. And it can save big bucks not just once, but every year, year after year.

Big donations are smart investments in their businesses and their personal wealth, almost as smart as R & D. And for businesses like casinos (Adelson’s) or oil (the Koch brothers’), in which R & D plays a minor role, it’s even smarter. For those businesses, it might be hard to find a better return on investment. Acquiring a competitor costs much more.

This analysis explains why the GOP has, for the past decade or so, become a one-pony show. It’s the big-donor party, the one that has the ear and handouts of the very rich. Nearly all of them are in business of some sort, or got their wealth from business.

Have you ever noticed GOP pols, let alone John Boehner, getting passionate about anything other than taxes, spending, debt and deficit? That’s all (in politics) that their big donors really care about, so that’s all they really care about, too. Maybe the GOP is becoming a permanent minority party just because there’s more to national life than taxes.

The third consequence of Citizens United’s terrible arithmetic may surprise you. Tom Sawyer’s America is becoming an aristocracy.

Not only are our aristocrats increasingly living in separate communities, behind gates and guards. With their well funded and well equipped private schools, they are becoming a self-perpetuating educational elite. They simply can’t understand why the Johnny who takes an empty stomach to a dilapidated school with no IT and poorly paid, harassed teachers can’t learn. And when they want to influence the government, they have ten thousand times the individual leverage of even well educated, well informed, upper-middle-class people like me.

This is democracy? Our Constitution outlaws royalty and titles of nobility, but we’ve started down the path of creating a unique Yankee aristocracy of our own. It lacks the titles, but it has wealth and power of which the dukes and lords of yore couldn’t even dream.

The mightiest duke in all of monarchial England never had a private plane, or leisure homes on several continents to fly it to. Nor could he retain the smartest professional demagogues in human history, who can broadcast brilliantly effective propaganda to millions over TV or the Internet, multiple times a day.

The fourth and final consequence of Citizens United’s terrible arithmetic is the most subtle. But, in the long run, it may do the most damage.

Although a progressive, I am, in general, an admirer of corporations. Why not be? They make the cars we drive, the planes we fly in, the drugs that keep us healthy, and the computer I’m typing this essay on. And when they stick to their knitting they do a damn fine job.

Even more important (and a condition of all the rest), they separate economic activity—business—from both politics and religion. Or at least they once did.

A good business answers only one question: will its products or services sell? In our mass consumer economy, the ordinary person is our chief arbiter of sales. So our consumer market society is inherently democratic.

That simple principle—market democracy—has made us the strongest, the richest and (once) the most egalitarian society in history. It’s what motived industrial autocrat Henry Ford to raise his workers’ wages to $5 a day, so they could afford to buy the cars they made.

Ford did that almost exactly a century ago. Our industrial democracy never looked back, at least until recently, during our new Gilded Age.

Now, under Citizens United, business is getting entangled in politics again, just as it was when Christopher Columbus had to seek Queen Isabella’s patronage to secure ships and supplies to explore the “New World.” Latin societies, which never adopted the corporate model with Northern Europe’s enthusiasm, have fared poorly in competition ever since. Soviet Russia and Communist China failed because, in essence, they tried to weld business and politics together permanently.

When politics wraps its octopus arms around business, and vice versa, can religion be far behind? We now have the spectacle of major corporations donating to campaigns for and against abortion, gay marriage, and subsidies to religion. None of these things has much to do with business or economic policy.

Business people don’t finance these campaigns because they are religious fanatics. By and large, they keep their religious views to themselves for fear of alienating customers. They finance these campaigns, with all their accompanying divisive propaganda, in order to motivate people who favor lower taxes to vote, and to discourage others from voting. But the effect of their doing so is to entangle business not only with government, but with religion, too.

This week’s principal report in The Economist urges governments worldwide to sell off their assets—not just state-owned enterprises, but also minority stakes in private firms and buildings, land, and natural resources. Their doing so might help balance budgets, and private owners might manage these assets more efficiently and with less political meddling.

But governments still do many things that private businesses don’t or can’t do. These things include preserving wilderness and Nature for posterity, defending the nation (against invaders, terrorists and pandemics), arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating criminals, promoting public health, sponsoring basic research, building and maintaining national and regional infrastructure (especially big projects), controlling traffic on land and sea and in the air, protecting the poor, unlucky and aged from poverty and abuse, and educating the vast majority of the population, which nowhere goes to private schools (except in Britain, where the meanings of “private” and “public” for schools are reversed).

Should private business, which is seldom eager to pay for all this useful work through taxes, refrain from trying to govern or control it by buying pols and elections with its business profits? Should government and private business remain separate and distinct spheres of human activity, even while their mutual boundaries are under perpetual renegotiation?

Our species’ meteoric rise since we got serious about division of labor and specialization a few centuries ago suggests an affirmative answer. So do the different skills that pols and business people require. Even the largest private firms are flyspecks compared to the population, geographic breadth, and human diversity of the smallest developed nation. To believe that a manager of a highly specialized private business, with minimal political experience, could run a nation whose substantive, geographic and human scope were incomparably larger than his firm’s would be the height of hubris, wouldn’t it?

No sane business person would think of letting even a highly successful dairy farmer run a software company, or a software magnate run a car company. So why should we think that letting business people run our government by buying pols or elections with their business profits is a good idea, even without considering their conflict of interest in ever-lower taxes?

If you were cynical, you might think our Supreme Court yearns for days of yore. In the age of monarchy, politics, religion and business all were one, united in the person of the Monarch. “L’etat c’est moi! Tout c’est moi!”

When the King or Queen switched sides, legions died in combat, for little or nothing real. Legions more were put to the Inquisition. If the Monarch didn’t patronize a commercial project, it didn’t go. The great exploratory voyages of Columbus and the Chinese eunuch admiral Zheng He (formerly Romanized as Cheng Ho) went only because of their respective monarch’s support.

One would have thought our species had made some social progress since those days.

Some day, if our Yankee Republic survives, historians will classify Citizens United with the biggest mistakes in our unique judicial history. It will go down with Dred Scott (1857), which continued African-Americans’ status as non-citizens capable of being “property,” and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which validated Apartheid in America, long before South Africa’s.

While reaching back to aristocracy and monarchy, Citizens United puts our good pols under impossible time pressure. It contributes mightily to partisanship and gridlock. It gives our rich a dominant voice in public life, often well beyond their contribution to it. (Casinos in Macao?) It confuses business, politics and religion, as in the days of monarchy. And it allows those who control our nation’s production to use its profits to propagandize us and subvert our elections and our leaders, all in a perverse—but oft remunerative—monomaniacal effort to increase their private gain.

What, if anything, were our Supremes thinking? Speech isn’t money, nor money speech. Every bum on a soapbox in Hyde Park or Union Square knows that. Corporations aren’t people, but legal fictions, as every first-year law student learns. Only the most egregiously blind sophistry could have convinced our good justices otherwise.

Already the consequences of their simplistic and erroneous abstractions are horrendous. Unless corrected, they will become catastrophic. They could easily wrest our Republic from us, in everything but name.

P.S. Al Franken’s Petition. You can do something about all this, and in less than a minute. You can sign Al Franken’s online petition.

Franken is a senator from Minnesota, where I’ve never lived. He used to be a writer for the TV show Saturday Night Live. He’s obviously a smart guy: his petition is short, sweet and simple. It just advocates a constitutional amendment to get rid of Citizens United, without saying exactly how.

There are other petitions for the same purpose. But it seems to me that one sponsored by a sitting United States senator, and one so simply and superbly written, will have the most impact. (Maybe Senator Franken would prefer to do something useful, instead of begging for money to finance propaganda, before giving up and going back to writing for TV. At least that sort of writing gives people a laugh, not heartburn.)

If just half this post strikes a cord in you, you should add your name to the long list of signatories, whether or not you signed an earlier, similar petition. I already have.

Footnote: As for hot-button issues like abortion, I’ve said about all I can on their distraction from real issues that matter to most of us here. The only accomplishment of politicizing the issue was winning some elections for the right wing. Its greatest triumph was helping put into office one of our worst presidents ever, whose own party didn’t invite him to its last national convention and would prefer that he just quietly fade away.

Do you think that focusing on substantive, non-religious policy might do better? It could hardly do worse.

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