Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Price of Free Speech *

Questions put to me recently:
Corporations and PACS spend huge amounts on political campaigns.
A)  Should corporations and PACS be allowed to do so?
B)  Should all political contributions be from registered voters [and be limited]? **
In early 2010, the Supreme Court decided that political contributions from corporations could not be limited by law because of a corporation's right to free speech, speech apparently costing money in today's society. Thankfully, the Supreme Court decided that disclosure of a corporation's identity to the public was still necessary. By creating an intermediary presence, PACs seem to be a way around this disclosure of a corporation's identity as I do not remember many commercials saying things like "BP supports John Doe for Congress."

The question of whether corporations should have the ability to spend huge amounts of money on campaigns, and in the process speak louder than any ordinary individual with more limited resources is a tricky one. Corporations have always  been given special status under the law and are a non-human entity with limited liability for their actions. Corporations were safer places to invest money this way, they would continue through many hardships. Usually crimes that would put ordinary citizens in jail are punished with fines. (Bernard Madoff might disagree a bit being a substantial crook taking advantage of the lax regulation that has been in place for a while now. I guess a corporation which is a Ponzi scheme is different than say a tobacco company which lied about known facts about products resulting in many deaths.) While corporations may represent stockholders when they exercise their free speech rights, employees would probably not be spoken for in many cases. Perhaps an argument could be made that their speech represents customers, though I am unsure that customers really shop on the basis of political views. Even stockholders have a greater profit motive than they do a political one. Whatever laws enrich their portfolio would be to their own best interest.

So, freedom of speech? While human rights are often granted corporations, I would certainly disagree on a personal basis as to whether the right to free speech needs unlimited spending as a necessity.

One thing that often bothers me about the stereotypical classic liberal stance is the portrayal of corporations as villains. Corporations have become necessary entities in America and around the world. The concept of a corporation provides a financial way to pool money to take on big nongovernmental projects. Corporations are responsible for most of the jobs, exports, and wealth of America. Allowing corporations special privileges and rights seems justified to some extent. After all, America is competing head on with other countries who do not hamper their corporations with minimum wage laws, environmental regulations, or regulations about the safety or working conditions of their employees. It seems to me that citizens should support corporations who have these extra burdens and should allow special treatment that is not detrimental to our country or the world. The extra burdens, though morally necessary, put our companies at risk of losing the purely capitalistic battle they have to wage. When corporations lose or find it cheaper to export jobs, we all lose.

While it is true that this international problem for America has gotten completely out of control with our own determination to spread capitalism around the world, this is not to say that corporations in America should have the right to regulate themselves. And self regulation is exactly what their political contributions are aimed at getting.

After losing so many of our manufacturing jobs to other countries, the idea that floated around during the Clinton and Bush administrations seemed to be that the financial sector was the way out of our problems. Indeed the financial companies were pulling in most of the big bucks as the first increments of deregulation took place. Further deregulation appeared to be the answer to expanding our national wealth (wealth that was privately controlled and incidentally readily available for political contributions, or to do things like pay for jobs for ex-politicians.) Deregulation seemed to work well at first. Historic regulations that had been put into place to avoid a second Great Depression were being repealed one after another. Investment "banks" were becoming free to be "creative." Laws were enacted (both parties had a hand) that encouraged the lending of money to riskier and riskier people. The unregulated astronomical salaries of the top executives were dependent on profits made in the short term rather than the long term. Percentage-wise, bonuses were just so much better with higher amounts of money in play. Risk therefore was the order of the day. Should the investment company fail, well, no one would be taking away the executives' money already earned. Executives could just move on. Besides, the federal government was unlikely to allow investment companies to fail when they were "too big to fail." There was strength in expanding risk and therefore size. Unwise practices seemed to be wiser than they were in 1929.

Investment companies had a right to free speech in the form of campaign contributions (in addition to the ability to pay off good behavior of former regulators in the form of jobs after retirement from regulatory duties.) I think free speech was a currency that bought investment companies way too much but I guess the Supreme Court disagrees.

While I have cherry picked  an example of how regulation of companies by our government was needed in spades, most companies would like a tip of the hat from government in one form or another. Influence in the form of political contributions is extremely profitable. While it is time to listen to companies and what they need to survive, it is not time to allow them to buy off candidates to push through whatever government actions financially suit their specific company in the short term. That is just not an efficient way for them to spend their money, for one thing; nor is it particularly good when regulations beneficial to our society and the well being of our citizens are influenced by lawmakers who owe blind allegiance to the corporations which financially lifted them up the ladder of political success (and that would be loyally cash friendly for the next campaign.)

What we actually need is:  Note this move has almost been universally panned by the liberal community. There are unnecessary regulations that stick around long after they are useful or were misguided in the first place. For the right wing, check out some of the proposals being made to take some unnecessary stuff out of recently passed health care regulation. As I see it politically, Republicans need to propose and do real things rather than making symbolic moves to "repeal" the entirety of health care reform, for instance. As usual, little work or thought is necessary to oppose something in it's entirety. Why not offer suggestions to improve on parts? I honestly don't know. This shows much less willingness to compromise than President Obama's olive branches that have been held out for almost two years with little or actually no success.

As to whether we should only allow registered voters to contribute to political campaigns, I won't question the Supreme Court's definition of our constitutional right to free speech on that one. Every citizen has the right to free speech, if political contributions equate to free speech. I would consider that any citizen of the United States, registered voter or not, would be far more relevant than foreign shareholders in our multinational companies, or foreign customers for that matter, who apparently enjoy freedom of speech to influence American elections just from the companies they associate with. If money buys free speech, American citizens all have that right, registered voters or not.

Limits on contributions are trickier. Arbitrary numbers surely must leave someone out. Lower amounts of money would not give anyone much influence, and higher amounts would give more wealthy people the most influence. And I hope we do not strive to be a plutocratic any more than we already are. This same concept of limits should apply to corporations, of course. A company can grow larger through laws favoring deregulation or favoring regulations that limit their competition's well being. So following this growth there is more money or more influence. Just as monopolies grow larger, the regulations against monopolies become more remote as the monopolies have more political influence. Again arbitrary dollar limits have been the law in the past, but no more. The interesting thing to me is the fact that the price of my corn flakes should be directly affected by the political tenacity of my corn flake provider's executives. Or think of it from the perspective of my corn flake company's ability to compete in the world wide capitalistic system, wasting tons of money to influence a government which should already be trying to help an American business. (In my own personal experience the point of pure evil was reached when my Blue Cross / Blue Shield fees, umm contributions, were used in unlimited amounts to fight the health care bill I favored, or just muss it up as much as possible. I had no voice at all in my employer's choice of health care insurance and therefore the free speeches given with my money that to me might be better used to help the sick and dying.)

Similarly, the rich could influence politicians with high political contributions. Politicians could pay them back by, say, tax cuts where the highest percentage of the money goes to those rich, perhaps enough to make giving to politicians so much easier and profitable. It is similar to the growth of monopolies in a way.

Because of the undemocratic nature of our election process, the only vote for President that I felt was significant was my monetary contributions to the Obama campaign and those of other representatives that were not in my state. Here is why: the President is elected by a state by state winner-take-all process. My vote is forever meaningless as is everyone else's in my state because we are not a "swing state." In the primaries, I very seldom have a voice because it is often decided well before my state gets to vote. In the Senate race, I have a variable influence depending on which state I live in. In Wyoming, the few people there have 2 votes in the Senate, the great many people in California have the same 2 votes as well. And to top it off, it's much easier for a company's or citizen's monetary contributions to influence Wyoming because the television commercials are far cheaper than in California. The selection of the Supreme Court depends entirely on my nonexistent vote in the Presidential elections. And the House, while the most democratically selected, uses gerrymandering of districts to keep hold of seats once they have hold of them and a make up a majority with the ability to redraw districts.

Suffice it to say a better solution can be found here:
"Voting with dollars," is a truly terrible name under which to market a a very good idea that gives everyone equal influence. The best part of this plan isn't the public financing part, although this would insure everyone had an equal vote. The dynamic game changer is that corporations would have to donate their money without quid pro quo for donations. No politician could be sure where the money was coming from because of the anonymity in respect to politicians, rather than to citizens. Ingenious, I think. What do you think?

*for Dianne and Randy

**Specific examples of limits also  posed in this paragraph: "Suppose item B is true, and everyone has a $1000 political limit. A registered voter could spend $500 for candidate #1 (say for President), $250 for candidate #2 (say a Senator), $200 for candidate #3 (say a Representative), and that would be ALL that a person could donate for that election."

[The extra $50? Pocket it for coffee money for staying up all night to watch the election coverage from actual deciders in Florida where I'm personally sending my first $500 .] -Mike :)