October 21, 2013

KUHN: Money and Power, But No Respect

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The cynical and sagacious Washington operative, Frank Underwood, from the show “House of Cards” once lamented that a promising aide had crossed into the private sector, saying “such a waste of talent. He chose money over power — in this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the Mcmansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.” As appealing as the metaphor is, the distinction between money and power is becoming less and less obvious. Much has been made of our nation’s grossly distorted wealth distribution. But an equally troubling phenomenon is that the distribution of wealth in America mirrors the distribution of access to “power” in the Underwoodian sense. It’s becoming increasingly clear that changes to campaign finance laws over past decade have meant that money and influence have become entangled in a way that forsakes what is supposed to be a cornerstone of our national identity — equal access to shaping the national political discourse.

Recent events illustrate the ludicrous discrepancy between the capacities of the rich and the poor to shape political outcomes. Halliburton oil company has been singularly ambitious in its legal indiscretions. Its crimes run the gamut from corruption in Timor and Nigeria to overcharging the Pentagon for fuel deliveries in Iraq to negligent construction of the Deepwater Horizon Well that exploded, claiming 11 lives and leaking upwards of 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Most recently, in July, the company pleaded guilty to charges that it destroyed evidence of computer simulations which indicated that the well’s model may have been unsound. Last week, the cementing technology director in charge of the cement on the Deepwater Horizon well was convicted of destroying that evidence, neatly pinning an institutionally-incentivized crime to a tangible criminal.

And yet, despite the Citizens United ruling that corporations should be treated as individuals when donating to political campaigns, Halliburton’s decorated rap sheet hasn’t been an obstacle to the company’s ability to vote with its money. In 2012 alone, the company donated upwards of $523,000 to political campaigns through its political action committee, Halpac — mostly to Republican members of crucial legislative committees.

The bitter irony is that even as the rich are given new avenues to power and seemingly unlimited second chances at influencing policy, the poor are being excluded from the political process in ever more inventive and widespread ways. The 2012 elections were marred by numerous efforts by state governments to impose obstacles to voting, which almost exclusively inconvenienced the poor, such as requiring government-issued photo identification, shortening early voting periods and requiring proof of citizenship at the polls. According to the non-profit research and advocacy group, The Sentencing Project, nearly 6 million (needless to say largely poor) Americans are unable to vote due to prior felony convictions. To be clear, many of these ex-convicts shouldn’t be allowed to vote. But the disjuncture between the civic penalties exacted on human and corporate criminals is tough to swallow. The Supreme Court decision last year that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which contained the formula for determining which districts require federal consent for implementing any change in voting protocols, removed another federal protection meant to ensure equal access to the polls.

To summarize: A $24 billion per year company which has a history of illegal and dangerous business practices gets to play political kingmaker with less than a fifth of its hourly revenue, while millions of average Americans are systematically excluded from the fundamental civic activity: voting. We need to remember that good capitalism grows out of fair democracy, not the other way around.

The political crisis of the past couple weeks (and the broader dysfunction of American federal politics that this crisis grew out of) is directly related to the ability of moneyed special interest groups to support the ideologically extreme factions which cripple the ability of legitimate political parties to govern. It’s likely that the Republican intra-party divisions which have so inhibited reasonable debate and compromise would have existed with or without these independent fundraising organizations. But the money groups like the Club for Growth pump into the Tea Party serves to intimidate more moderate politicians into taking harder lines just to secure campaign funding for primaries and amplifies the influence of radical minorities within Congress. Getting the money out of politics is the most direct way to more closely align ideological influence with the electoral salience of that ideology, which is in turn the best way to tether the politician’s natural instinct of self-preservation to the preferences of the electorate.