Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Road to Plutocracy: Follow the Money

I must admit that I am still in a state of shock from Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission where the supreme court essentially stepped aside, or otherwise felt they couldn't or shouldn't get in the way, and allowed one of the most fundamental, profound, and revolutionary statements to be redefined:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Centuries old, and these words still carry the power to light a spark in the human soul. We, through some kind of legal contortion, felt that the foundational idea of a government deriving its power from the consent of the governed could not be upheld in its simplicity. Yet, here I am finding myself still mystified at how this could have happened. There's a part of me that believes that I've allowed myself to get too wrapped up in an academic political discussion about dysfunctions in government and that I just need to wake up from it and get back to reality where I live in a government "of the people, by the people, for the people" as was so eloquently stated.

Fortunately, I still do live in a democracy. However, I feel like I can see this democracy slipping away. When we change the very definition of a person such that it explicitly or implicitly allows for the exact situation which leads to a plutocracy, is that not putting government on a path that ultimately is destructive towards its only rightful ends? And with statements like:
Permit me to issue and control the money of the nation and I care not who makes its laws.
...coming from political-economic greats of long past, it can be easy to lose hope and feel we are doomed to repeat history.

Now, I'm not much of a revolutionary. Nor am I a doomsayer. Perhaps I should be. Perhaps I should care more and be more outraged than I am. But one cannot help but feel totally powerless in a world filled with trillions of dollars, billions of people, gigabytes, wait no, terabytes!, wait no, petabytes!!, wait no, exabytes of information!!!

Despite my lack of being a revolutionary, there is one thing that I am passionate about--data. Data, truth, light, knowledge... we've all heard how it can make you powerful, set your free, fill your heart/mind, and change the world. Indeed, humanity itself is in the information revolution where entire industries have sprung up simply around the acquisition, management, or interpretation of information.

So my small contribution in the fight against corporate person-hood and its precursor to a plutocratic government is a very simple calculation about how money flows into the U.S. government, what that means for representation, and how "we the people" compare against our newly "emancipated" fellow citizens. The purpose of this calculation is more of a thought exercise than it is any kind of detailed audit. My hope is that through this, people can clearly picture what the flow of money means when it comes to staying true to the fundamental concepts on which this nation was founded.

Following The Money

It is no secret that our elected representatives are compensated for their service. Indeed, they should be. Otherwise we would only limit our elected representatives to those who are independently wealthy (although that hasn't stopped that trend from occurring anyways). In 2010, the salary for a senator or representative was $174,000 (source). With 435 representatives and 100 senators, that's a total of $93,090,000 spent from taxpayer money in 2010. Assuming 250 working days in year and 17 waking hours in which politicians can work (have you ever known a politician who stops being a politician before 9am or after 5pm?), this works out to $40.94 an hour per politician. Note that this ignores private citizen campaign contributions.

Now, fortunately, recent reform has required more transparency in lobbying activities. This reform is not perfect, but it at least makes some actual numbers available. From 1998 - 2010 $28,919,684,431 of registered lobbying occurred (source). This works out to a simple average of $2,224,591,110 per year. With the same 535 politicians, same 250 working days, and 17 working hours, this works out to being approximately $978.38 an hour per politician. This too ignores campaign contribution activity.

From this, we have a basic ratio which compares the amount of money private taxpayers provide to their politicians to the amount of money lobbyists provide to politicians: 0.0418.

Now, 0.0418 is not very meaningful so here are a few ways to interpret what this means:
  • If time equals money, then U.S. citizens only get 43 minutes a day of their politician's time. The rest of the 16 hours and 17 minutes goes to lobbyists.
  • For every dollar spent on a politician, $0.95 came from a lobbyist.
  • For every tax payer dollar that goes to a politician, $23.90 is spent by a lobbyist.
  • Citizens spend $40.94/hr on each of their politicians and lobbyists spend $978.38/hr. Who do you think the politicians serve?
Now almost certainly, the initial numbers I started with in this exercise can be debated. I hope they will be. But more than that, I hope any debate around this simple calculation comes back to put things in perspective. I believe that however someone wants to frame the initial numbers, the amount of money flowing from private citizens to politicians will pale in comparison when compared to the amount of money flowing from lobbyists. And for a country that so strongly believes that money is power while also believing that government is "of the people, by the people, for the people" this strikes me as one of the greatest hypocrisies in modern U.S. history.

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