To fight inequality, first fix elections
BridgeND | Thursday, October 15, 2015
Historically speaking, the United States has always responded more effectively to issues in which a clear enemy was present. During the Cold War it was the communists, during World War II it was the Nazis and the Japanese Empire and in modern times the great national security threat is jihad and groups that sponsor acts of terror, mainly in the Middle East. A clear enemy presents a clear directive — something that can be limited to a platitude and easily consumed by the public. Lawmakers and leaders can load, aim, and troubleshoot with relative ease. The American political system is, by design, inefficient. Checks and balances as well as a bicameral legislature assure that majority rules while minority rights are protected, though these safeguards of liberty and democracy often grind the government to a halt on controversial issues. Our founders intended to place prudence above expedience, but when expedience is necessary to combat an issue that threatens the vitality and security of the United States, the system has shortcomings.
That is why we are more effective when we have a clear enemy. However, what happens when this enemy is more insidious — when it eats away at the political and economic strength of the country and replaces it with malaise? Not often have we faced this brand of a challenge. We do today.
President Obama has called income inequality and the lack of economic mobility the “defining challenge of our time.” As I illustrated in my last column, lawmakers and candidates alike have commented on the severity of economic inequality. The vast majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed. The causes for rampant inequality are vast, but the most important are globalization, the decrease in labor union strength and opportunity inequality.
So how should we address the issue in a responsible manner that beckons for a new era of economic strength and welfare in the United States? The answer includes the usual prescription for a great challenge: good policy, bold leadership and prescient planning. However, in the case of economic inequality, a new ingredient must be added considering the time-sensitive nature of the issue: expedited action.
At the root of the issue is an oversimplification of the American economic system. Both major political parties are guilty of substituting platitudes for policy, touting unfettered capitalism as the most desirable economic system while neglecting the controls that must be placed on capitalism to save it from itself. Politicians are not wholly to blame — touting capitalism and American exceptionalism in the same breath was a vital tool in containing communism during the Cold War and in spreading free-market ideals that are not only better for a nation’s economy but also for its people. Trade liberalization and free market reforms in developing countries have led to better diplomatic relations and more wealth for hundreds of millions who would not have benefited from central planning.
To combat the problems that arise from capitalism, the United States must enact reforms aimed at stemming the tide of rampant inequality. In order to push these policies through Congress and state legislatures, the federal legislature must first address a key hurdle to passing these reforms: campaign finance.
The result of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission in 2008 was among the more troubling decisions ever rendered by the Supreme Court because of its foreseeable consequences and undermining of American democratic values. The Court decided that wealth could play an unrestricted role in the electoral system, citing the First Amendment rights of donors and conflating wealth with speech. In the last presidential election, President Obama and Gov. Romney spent a combined $2 billion on their campaigns. That number stands to increase in the 2016 election cycle: Bloomberg View predicts that figure could be close to $10 billion when all is said and done. As Professor Sanford Lakoff of the University of California, San Diego notes, this tremendous influx of unrestricted campaign donations results “in policies that exacerbate economic inequality.” To an extent, deregulated campaign finance laws allow special interest groups and corporations to hold lawmakers and candidates hostage – “yea” votes on policies favorable to these groups may result in vital donations for a lawmaker’s next campaign.
This would be most troublesome for members of the House of Representatives, who must stand for reelection every two years. Though this Constitutional provision allowed for optimal democratic response in the absence of unrestricted campaign finance, the ballgame has changed. In 2013, the Boston Globe reported that upon arrival to Washington, freshmen Democratic congressmen fresh from exciting campaign battles were told by the leadership that to preserve their majority two years later they had to devote “at least four hours each day to the tedious task of raising money.” A report done by the Brookings Institute showed that in 2012, Senate candidates spent on average $10.3 million, a 62 percent increase since 1986. Even more profound was the increase in spending on House elections, up 344 percent from 1986 to $1.6 million per election. In an age where big-money donors have the power to make raising money a lot easier, who knows how much has been wasted yearly on pork barrel projects to satisfy these donors? The integrity of the allocation of government contracts, votes on vital policy measures and the day-to-day operations of legislators is corrupted by the massive infusion of money in politics.
I, for one, would prefer for my representative to be using four hours a day on a vast list of activities better for the country: perhaps spending more time researching the issues, establishing relationships with the opposition party and seeking compromise on controversial issues.
In the realm of persistent inequality, this issue is even more troubling. Those without the ability to donate massive sums of money to policymakers will not likely benefit from the policies they pass. No longer is voting the only voice one can use to influence democracy — donating a large amount of money is even more effective and much louder than one penniless voice. Economics does not need to be a zero-sum game — all can benefit if those implementing regulation account for the concerns of all parties involved. Unrestricted campaign finance presents a clear incentive to focus solely on the concerns of your donors, and that puts our prized democracy at risk.
The breakneck speed of globalization and technological advancement will not wait for the United States — we need to address the underlying issues ailing our democratic institutions now. We will never strike the proper balance between pro-corporation policy and consumer-protecting reforms to ensure a large and enduring prosperity if we do not balance the playing field by removing big money from politics. This initiative is something I suspect both parties would agree on — liberals tout minority rights and conservatives disparage wasteful spending and government inefficiency. America will not be able to achieve its economic potential in the modern age if it does not first fix its political system.
Liam Dalton is a freshman in the College of Arts and Letters and intends on majoring in International Economics and Chinese. BridgeND is a bipartisan student political organization that brings together Democrats, Republicans and all those in between to discuss public policy issues of national importance. They meet Tuesday nights from 8-9 p.m. in the McNeil room of LaFortune Student Center. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by following them on Twitter @bridge_ND
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.