Monday, May 27, 2013

Getting Money Out Of Politics

These days many people makes it their goal to get money out of politics.

A few days ago, for instance, a number of Vermont State Senators called for a constitutional convention to pass an amendment invalidating the Citizens United decision. They, like many other well-meaning people today, focus most of their attention on the decision in which the Supreme Court gave rich people practically carte blanche to spend as much money as they please supporting their favorite candidates in elections.

But the focus on Citizens United is really counterproductive. It pays attention to one minor aspect of the role money pays in politics and by putting all of the attention on that one Supreme Court decision confuses everyone about the real problem.

Last week’s Sunday paper ran a long story about newly elected members of the House of Representatives in Washington. It recounts how the newly elected Congressmen and Women are raring to go to overcome the glaring failures of our current legislators ( and of course, of the President.) But they are pulled up short when they are told that they had to spend at least four hours a day raising money for their reelection.

This fact antedates the Citizens United decision. Some observers of Congress estimated a number of years ago that elected officials must spend as much as nine hours a day on the phone raising money.

No doubt getting an accurate number for the time needed for fundraising is extremely difficult. But getting money to get reelected is a serious task for all representatives. It prevents them from doing their job, which consists of writing bills, reading proposed bills, and informing themselves on issues they need to vote on. They are too busy raising money so they leave the bill writing and reading to the lobbyists.

But the problem of money in politics is even more extensive. There has been a lot of publicity about textile workers in Bangladesh who die when shoddily constructed buildings collapse or catch on fire.

The public has put considerable pressure on the large clothing chains who get their supplies from Bangladesh and China where working conditions are equally horrendous. The public wants these textile merchants to make sure that the workers are safe where they work, that their working conditions are healthful, and their pay adequate.

An article in the current issue of Boston Review retells the sad story of voluntary efforts of large clothing chains in the US and in Europe to improve working conditions in Asia. A careful study of these efforts by a MIT professor suggests that these efforts are, on the whole, ineffective. There are at least two different reasons for that:

The Western clothing chains are involved in intense competition with each other. They need to produce their clothing as cheaply as possible. They need to have a large range of different products and must be able to offer new designs on short order. Under those pressures, their efforts to improve working conditions in Asia remain lukewarm and intermittent. They cannot afford to make more robust efforts without reducing their earnings.

The governments in the Asian countries face a similar dilemma. They are concerned for the security and safety of their citizens. But they are also very afraid that if they demand better working conditions, which might raise the price of textiles, the production would be moved to a competing Asian country.

Asian textile workers are subject to regular disasters because no one is willing to spend the money or reduce the profits that would be necessary to guarantee safer working conditions.

A long time ago Calvin Coolidge said “America’s business is business” and that means “America’s business is making as much money as possible” even at the expense of the lives of young women in Cambodia and China and elsewhere in periodic building collapses and fires.

Here is the root cause of the excess of money in politics – whether that concerns electioneering or ensuring the safety of seamstresses in Asia. America’s business is business and so is the business of Canada, and Great Britain, and Sweden, and any other country you may think of.

Wherever you go, it’s profits over people. The Citizens United decision is only one small example of that. We will not take money out of politics until we’re serious about preferring people over profits.

Until then we have a long way to go.