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“In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.’’
-- Anatole France
Ambrose Bierce famously defined politics as the "strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.’’ There are people of principle in politics, but Bierce’s statement is a pretty good generalization. The Founding Fathers would have generally agreed with it.
The Supreme Court’s recent McCutcheon ruling, in which it struck down overall limits on campaign contributions by individual donors, is much less important than many have made it out to be. Yes, it’s true that yet more money will flow into the campaign cycle. And, yes, America’s oligarchs will continue to accumulate power, aided by the general public’s civic disengagement.
But money flows around campaign-finance laws as water flows around rocks in a river. I doubt if any limits have all that much effect. After all, look at the record since Watergate-era reform laws went into effect. There are so many monetary methods by which rich folks can influence politicians to help maintain or expand donors’ wealth and power. And as government has gotten bigger, there’s more and more reason to buy influence in it.
A couple of things, however, could level the playing field a little. One would be tougher (not more) laws mandating transparency in campaign gifts. If more voters could find out who’s giving what to whom, they’d be better able to make evidence-based decisions on Election Day. Back when I was a newspaper editor, I tried to find out who was funding an op-ed writer and/or the “public interest’’ group he/she was writing for and then note it at the bottom of their essays. Much of the time they turned out to be pushing an economic self-interest -- e.g., the climate-change deniers were paid by oil and coal companies, those fighting medical-malpractice reform were funded by trial lawyers’ associations. But all too often I gave up trying to find out. Deadlines!
Indeed, news organizations (most are understaffed) rarely try to discover the paymaster behind opinion pieces. And it can be very difficult to find out, though such organizations as Guide Star, FollowTheMoney.org and the Sunlight Foundation can sometimes help cut through the smoke from the smoke machines of economic royalists.
Another thing that could help reduce the prostitution in Washington is vastly simplifying the tax code, which has been endlessly complicated to please economic interest groups and do social engineering. The more complicated – and the perception it can be complicated even more – the tax code, the more donors are drawn to bribe members of Congress to manipulate it to the donors’ advantage.
Enacting a modified flat-tax system would dramatically reduce campaign corruption and free up vast amounts of time now spent to game the impenetrable code that Congress and the White House have given us over the decades. (Don’t blame the IRS – they’re just following orders.)
Likewise with other laws: The more complicated they’re made, the more campaign donors bribe elected officials to manipulate them and the regulations to enforce them. Complication favors corruption.
Finally, the majority of the public could, for a change, vote. Before that, they could study the issues, and find out who’s paying whom. But they probably won’t bother.
Let’s laud Rep. Tim Murphy (R.-Pa.), a clinical psychologist, for pushing what would probably be the biggest improvement ever in the federal government’s support for programs to address mental illness. It’s a complex measure but two elements stand out. One would put federal support behind court-ordered treatment of certain severely ill people (bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia victims particularly come to mind). Most states allow, in varying degrees, this sort of mandatory treatment, which is often the only thing that works.
The other thing is easing the disastrous federal law of 1996 that has made it almost impossible in many cases for family and other caregivers of mentally ill people to get actionable medical information on these sick people – and thus can make it almost impossible to treat them. Of course, this bleeds into the rest of the health-care system: Think of how many more overtly physical illnesses stem from mental illness.
How wonderful finally to be able to walk around outside without four layers of clothing, to see a few more patches of green grass, more crocuses and even daffodils every morning, albeit on south-facing slopes. As the writer Bill Bryson noted, New England’s beauty is undermined by the difficulty of strolling in it for several months of the year. I say that an old person for whom harsh weather becomes more inconvenient every year. Still, if winter weather slows the arrival of the Ebola virus, I’ll take it. Colder places are generally healthier places.
Robert Whitcomb is a New England-based writer, editor and business consultant.