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Sarah Palin’s Thoughts on Solving Government Corruption

Many Americans are realizing that the United States government is ineffective due the drastic levels of corruption that plague our electoral system and heavily impact the decisions and statements our candidates make as they run for Congress and the White House.  Washington’s policies are absurd because big campaign donors only give money to get political favors, and those favors are paid by our elected officials when they allow the rich to avoid paying taxes, demand ever-increasing amounts of government subsidies, and get away with causing environmental disasters.  Our politicians are not stupid and weak; they are actually strategic and strong, but so heavily corrupted by their need for campaign cash that they sell their votes to the highest bidder.  Both frequent political phenomena over the past few years, the conservative Tea Party and the liberal Occupy Movement, openly recognize and criticize the existing system.  Former Alaskan governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin gave a surprisingly clear portrayal of the corrupt system in a September 2011 speech titled “Restoring America.”  (the transcript can be located on her website at http://www.sarahpac.com/posts/governor-palins-speech-at-the-restoring-america-tea-party-of-america-rally-in-indianola-iowa-video-and-transcript and a video of the speech can be viewed athttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0-CLyI8BIE)  Palin described her ideas for ending such corruption, though those ideas are not likely to have much impact on the central problem of money dominating our elections.

After some introductory words of thanks to her audience, Palin quickly launched into a description of current U.S. economic problems.  “Today, one in five working-age men are out of work. One in seven Americans are on food stamps. Thirty percent of our mortgages are underwater. In parts of Michigan and California, they’re suffering from unemployment numbers that are greater than during the depths of the Great Depression.” (Palin, “Restoring America,” September 3, 2011)  Nothing is mysterious about such statements;  even the Princeton economist Paul Krugman agrees with the use “Depression” to describe current circumstances in his book End This Depression Now (W.W. & Norton and Co., Inc.: 2012).  Palin also described how the Depression has been caused by political corruption.  “We sent a new class of leaders to D.C., but immediately the permanent political class tried to co-opt them – because the reality is we are governed by a permanent political class, until we change that.” (Palin, “Restoring America”)  It is unclear whether she referred to the Democratic Party’s victory in the 2008 elections or the Republican Party’s resurgence in 2010 elections.  Either way, nothing much has changed politically because voters are far less powerful than the “permanent political class” of rich donors, lobbyists, and corporate executives that largely decide which candidates win by controlling political advertising money.  Palin is correct to describe our national leaders as co-opted and controlled by money, and that we must change the ability of money to dominate our elections if we hope to ever affect real political change.

Palin next drew a clear connection between the rich that control politicians and how those politicians give in to the rich.  She continued to call the rich and powerful the Permanent Political Class.

Yeah, the permanent political class – they’re doing just fine. Ever notice how so many of them arrive in Washington, D.C. of modest means and then miraculously throughout the years they end up becoming very, very wealthy? Well, it’s because they derive power and their wealth from their access to our money – to taxpayer dollars.  They use it to bail out their friends on Wall Street and their corporate cronies, and to reward campaign contributors, and to buy votes via earmarks. There is so much waste. And there is a name for this: It’s called corporate crony capitalism. This is not the capitalism of free men and free markets, of innovation and hard work and ethics, of sacrifice and of risk. No, this is the capitalism of connections and government bailouts and handouts, of waste and influence peddling and corporate welfare. (Palin, “Restoring America”)

Palin revealed that the rich are often rich because they get government favors.  They spend a part of their income to influence candidates and choose which candidates go into Congress or the White House.  The newly-elected leaders quickly move to give more government favors to their own financial supporters – a financial give-and-take that leaves the rich wallowing in wealth and power, and the rest of the taxpayers wondering where their votes and their money went.  In short, the use of money in politics controls later government decisions, which in the end hurts government efficiency, economic growth, and the general public.

Unfortunately, Sarah Palin then went on to attack President Obama and the Democrats for many of their corrupt deals while largely overlooking the details of her own Republican Party’s similar deals with oil companies and other corporate interests.  Even as she says the American voters must overturn the whole system, she does not name Republican leaders as participating in corrupt bargains.  “So, this is why we must remember that the challenge is not simply to replace Obama in 2012. The real challenge is who and what we will replace him with. It’s not enough to just change up the uniform. If we don’t change the team and the game plan, we won’t save our country.” (Palin, “Restoring America”)  Her statements are still focused, though, on changing the money and advertising systems that largely choose which candidates win elections – she still advocates changing the “game plan” in a fundamental way.

However, she fails to give any ideas likely to change the existing system.  Instead, she begins her plan with a general statement on supporting capitalism but hating corruption.  “I believe in the free market, and that is why I detest crony capitalism.” (Palin, “Restoring America”)  Palin fails to see that crony capitalism is the direct result of what one might call “free market politics.”  Capitalism is the theory of investment, risk, and profit as a reward.  Allowing free market economic ideas into political campaigns naturally allows the rich to invest the most money and, therefore, dominate the election results.  That is how Free Markets create Crony Politics.  Palin fails to see that obvious connection, and therefore fails to understand that giving all candidates equal funding and making it illegal for any candidate to take private money are the best ways of avoiding Crony Politics.  (All of these ideas can be read in detail at www.machineryofpolitics.com)  Instead of advocating for government-funded elections that would eliminate private money, Palin calls for the following policies to end Crony Politics:

1. Reduce Federal government power

2. Create Free Market Health Insurance programs

3.Entitlement reform, but with no suggestions for changing Social Security

4. Drilling for domestic oil sources to make U.S. into an “energy superpower”

5. Eliminate Federal income taxes on corporations

6. Cut corporate loopholes to end Corporate Welfare

7. Create a fully Free Market Economy

Conservative politicians have been demanding such policies since at least the 1980s.  When looking at the outline of her ideas for ending corruption, it is clear that her program will do little to end the dominance of money in our campaigns or in political advertising, and therefore will not change government corruption or eliminate waste.  In fact, many of her ideas could make the current corruption worse by inviting the rich to spend even moreto control government policy.  Opening up all U.S. oil reserves to private drilling companies would convince those companies to spend lavishly on political candidates in order to ensure that their company would gain access to the oil.  Eliminating federal taxes on corporations would give companies even more money to spend on politics, especially if some companies fear losing the profits they currently gain from Corporate Welfare.  Demanding a fully Free Market Economy, Free Market Health Insurance coverage, and reducing government power would likely give even more wealth and power to the rich that already seek to avoid having to follow government laws and regulations designed to protect the public.

In total, Sarah Palin gave a strong description of how money corrupts our politics, how corrupted politicians make wasteful and harmful decisions, and that the existing money-in-politics system must be changed if we hope to save the United States from catastrophe.  She clearly understands the problems that plague government today, but seems to have little idea how to solve those problems.  She powerfully called for a change to the “game plan,” but her conservative ideas distracted her from what the game is and confused her plan for changing it.

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Lessig’s Shortcomings

The recent rise of “Tea Party” and “Occupy” Movements clearly reveal an unhappiness with the American electoral system.  Much of this unhappiness has boiled into anger and aggression.  Both sides openly talk about revolting against a political system so inherently corrupt that it is incapable of solving the massive economic and social problems the United States faces today.  Most Americans view both Congress and the presidency as inept, childish, and unreliable.  Americans keep voting for “change” – only one president since 1976 has won office without advertising himself as an outsider sent to Washington on the promise to clean up the mess – but keep getting the same results.  Most Americans understand that “change” is difficult to achieve when elections are won by money 90% of the time.

Tea Party activists and Occupiers both say that corrupt “special interests” spending money to win elections is the source of most American political crises.  Lawyers, Representatives, Senators, and even former leaders of presidential Administrations have proposed many different changes to our campaign finance laws aimed at eliminating the ability of the rich to win elections by merely outspending everyone else.  Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig proposed some of the clearest, simplest, and possibly most effective of these ideas in his book Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It (New York, Twelve: 2011).  Lessig’s ideas deserve far more attention than they have garnered in the mainstream press.  However, his plans fall short in the crucial area of “independent expenditures” – the ability of wealthy groups to build private media campaigns that often sway today’s American elections.

Republic, Lost gives a wonderful analysis of money’s role in American elections, how its dominant role in elections has hurt American economic and education systems, and how money “defeats” liberal and conservative attempts at changing the system.  The book is highly useful for any reader just beginning to learn about American political problems.  Lessig moves into a detailed presentation of his plan for changing the system later in the book.  His plan has four major steps:

            First, we convert the first fifty dollars that each of us contributes to the federal Treasury into a voucher.  Call it a “democracy voucher.”  Each voter is free to allocate his or her democracy voucher as he or she wishes.  Maybe fifty dollars to a single candidate.  Maybe twenty-five dollars to two candidates. . . .  The only requirement is that the candidate receiving the voucher must opt into the system.

Second, if the democracy voucher is not allocated, then it goes to the political party to which the voter is registered.  If the voter is not registered to party, then it goes to supplement funding for the infrastructure of democracy: voting systems, voter education, and the Grant and Franklin Project.

Third, voters are free under this system to supplement the voucher contribution with their own contribution—up to $100 per candidate.  One hundred dollars is nothing . . . to about 2 percent of the American public.  It is a great deal of money to everyone else.

Fourth, and finally, any viable candidate for Congress could receive these contributions if he or she agreed to one important condition: that the only money that candidate accepted to fund his or her campaign would be democracy vouchers and contributions from individuals up to $100 per citizen.  That means no PAC money and no direct contributions form political parties.  (Lawrence Lessig, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It,New York, Twelve: 2011, page 267)

This seems to be a detailed plan for change, yet it is still short and simple enough for the average American to understand and easily use.  However, its major flaw is also obvious: the role of choice.  Remember: “The only requirement is that the candidate receiving the voucher must opt into the system” and “any viable candidate for Congress could receive these contributions if he or she agreed to one important condition” – that they only spend the voucher money plus the $100 contributions.  We simply cannot rely on politicians to choose to take small amounts of money rather than millions of dollars from single contributors.  Why would someone like Barak Obama choose to take such tiny contributions and reject the $700 billion he raised, and won with, in 2008?  The answer is simple: most politicians will reject public financing, as Obama did in 2008.  A better solution would force all candidates in any federal election to accept public financing as the only source of their campaign cash.

Another flaw in Lessig’s plan is equally important, though less obvious: the candidates’ campaigns are not the only groups spending money on media advertising.  Other groups, sometimes totally outside of any candidate’s campaign and not in contact with that campaign’s leadership, also spend huge amounts of money on political ads.  Some of these “independent expenditures” raise and spend tens of millions of dollars on attack ads aimed at jack-hammering worry and hatred into voters’ minds.  Such groups were limited to spending only $57,500 – until the Supreme Court killed those limits with the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision.  With the limits erased, “independent expenditure” groups now spend unlimited amounts of money on any political message they want.  Lessig understands this to be a gigantic problem – and he even admits that his “democracy voucher” plan is helpless to stop such powerful and motivated groups.

The candidates would smile and tell us all that their campaigns were funded by clean contributions only.  And that would be true.  But all the dirty work in the campaigns would be done by “Americans for a United Future” or “Veterans Against Feline Abuse” or “United We Stand Forever” or whatever.  On the margin, these independent campaigns would determine who won and who lost.  And as the margin is the game, this world enabled by Citizens Untied could well defeat all of the independence that [the democracy voucher plan] was meant to buy.  (Lessig, Republic, Lost, pages 271-272)

Even if Lessig’s “democracy voucher” plan became law, candidates could accept public financing for their campaign with full knowledge that their friends would rush to build “independent expenditure” groups to wage the advertising war with unlimited money.  That is where the so-called SuperPACs would be even more powerful and unstoppable than they are today.  Candidates could claim innocence even while conspiring to bury American democracy under increasing amounts of dirty money.

Again, the best solution would force all candidates in any federal election to accept public financing as the only source of their campaign cash.  Any realistic solution must also make “independent expenditures” illegal to fully kill their power to determine election winners.  We would probably need a Constitutional Amendment to make it happen, but that is the only way to be reasonably certain that money can no longer dominate our politics.  My recent book, The Machinery of Politics, proposes such an Amendment.  The entire book can be read and downloaded FOR FRE at www.machineryofpolitics.com.  Campaigns that are only publicly funded would allow We The People to truly determine election-day winners – and make this country into the democracy it advertises itself to be!

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The Incredible Shrinking President

Barack Obama represented many aspects of progressive politics in the 2008 election, and he promised several solid economic policies: a Health Care “Public Option,” an end to President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, a renegotiation of Free Trade Agreements, an end to U.S. support for foreign dictators that have propped up the U.S. economy, and movement toward ending the U.S. “addiction” to foreign oil imports.  These were his major platform promises in 2008, but he has failed to implement any of them.  In fact, when conservative politicians attacked these logical policies, President Obama repeatedly gave up his platform and caved in to their demands.  Progressives should be outraged at President Obama.  They need to make their demands even clearer during his re-election campaign if they expect to influence the president beyond 2012.  Americans in general also need to overhaul the electoral system that has clearly corrupted his judgment as president.

Health-care was one of the overwhelming topics of debate in the 2008 election.  Barack Obama was a major proponent of changing the existing system to make it more equal for the mass majority of Americans.

If you don’t have health insurance, then what we’re going to do is to provide you the option of buying into the same kind of federal pool that both Sen. McCain and I enjoy as federal employees, which will give you high-quality care, choice of doctors, at lower costs, because so many people are part of this insured group. . . .  This will cost some money on the front end, but over the long term this is the only way that not only are we going to make families healthy, but it’s also how we’re going to save the federal budget, because we can’t afford these escalating costs.  (Third Presidential Debate, held October 15, 2008 in Hempstead, New York.)

Obama here proposed what came to be known as the “public option” in health care: allowing un-insured Americans to purchase coverage in the same pool as federal employees.  Economists estimated that this would, indeed, lower the costs of health insurance due to the pool’s large size, which would allow it to collectively negotiate the best prices.  This is largely already in place in Japan, whose citizens are generally amongst the healthiest in the world.  (For more on Japan and other national health insurance systems, see T.R. Reid, The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, New York: Penguin, 2010).  Candidate Obama’s proposal was logical and well-proven, but President Obama completely abandoned it in the health care debates of 2009.  He continued asking for a “public option” even in September 2009, when gave a joint address to Congress.  (Barack Obama, Address to a Joint Session of Congress, September 9, 2009)  However, he completely abandoned this demand as Congress approached an actual vote in winter 2009.  The “public option” was not included in the eventual law, and President Obama signed off on this failure in March 2010.   (The final laws that reorganized the health insurance system are H.R. 3590 “The Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act of 2010” and H.R. 4872 “The Health Care Education Reconciliation Act of 2010).  The law today requires each citizen to purchase health insurance but does not provide the “public option” Obama campaigned for in 2008, which will result in many citizens being forced to buy overpriced, unreliable insurance through private corporations that are the heart of the American health care catastrophe.

Taxation was also a major debate in 2008.  Obama took a hard stand against President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, which he accused of mostly benefiting the wealthiest citizens.  Obama repeatedly promised to end such tax cuts for the wealthy and to keep taxes low for the middle class and poor.  “I will give a tax break to 95% of Americans who work every day and get taxes taken out of their paychecks every week. And I’ll help pay for this by asking the folks who are making more than $250,000 a year to go back to the tax rate they were paying in the 1990s.”  (Remarks by Senator Barack Obama on November 2, 2008 at Columbus, Ohio)  Obama proposed that tax rates for the rich should return to pre-Bush levels, saying that the government needs revenue to invest in its infrastructure.  “[N]obody likes taxes. I would prefer that none of us had to pay taxes, including myself. But ultimately, we’ve got to pay for the core investments that make this economy strong and somebody’s got to do it.”  (Third Presidential Debate, held October 15, 2008 in Hempstead, New York)  The Bush tax cuts were set to expire at the end of 2010, which would have sent all taxes back to the 1990s levels.  Conservatives demanded that all tax cuts continue, including the tax cuts for people making over $250,000 per year that Obama had specifically campaigned against in 2008.  President Obama surrendered again to conservative demands in December 2010, permitting tax cuts for the rich to continue until the end of 2012.   (The 2010 tax cut extension was included in H.R. 4853, “The Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010”)  Somebody’s got to pay for future investments, but Obama is unwilling to force the wealthy to do it.

Free Trade Agreements, which open international trade by eliminating taxes on imports, was mentioned in the Third Presidential Debate.  Obama focused on the shortcomings of Free Trade Agreements, even agreeing with long-held progressive and union stances that labor rights and environmental protections should be included in such treaties.

I believe in free trade. But I also believe that for far too long, certainly during the course of the Bush administration with the support of Sen. McCain, the attitude has been that any trade agreement is a good trade agreement. And NAFTA doesn’t have — did not have enforceable labor agreements and environmental agreements. . . .  [W]e have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn’t being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights, which is why, for example, I supported the Peruvian Free Trade Agreement which was a well-structured agreement.”  (Third Presidential Debate, held October 15, 2008 in Hempstead, New York)

Candidate Obama approached a demand to renegotiate NAFTA and other Free Trade Agreements in his support of labor and environmental standards.  However, President Obama avoided such discussions.  Perhaps most disturbingly, his avoidance of new talks comes without counter-demands from conservatives.  Instead, President Obama appears to have made this decision on his own.  In other words, on the topic of free trade, President Obama cannot even be accused of surrendering to public pressure.

Another major problem is that many of these tax reducing deals are made with the agreement of foreign dictators.  The United States has used and abused foreign nations in order to create cheap products for its own economy since the end of World War Two.   (For more on this history, see John Perkins, Secret History of the American Empire: The Truth About Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and How to Change the World, New York: Plume, 2008, and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, New York: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004)  Some examples are the coups against Iran in the 1950s and support for dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iraq beginning in the 1970s – and these are merely the countries that the U.S. targeted for oil reserves!  The U.S. government’s stance for the last 60 years has been to support dictatorships if they are friendly to the United States.  Barack Obama took a clear stand against such policies in 2008, even promising to personally end such foreign relations.

[T]he problem, John, with the strategy that’s been pursued was that, for 10 years, we coddled [Pakaistani dictator Pervez] Musharraf, we alienated the Pakistani population, because we were anti-democratic. We had a 20th-century mindset that basically said, ‘Well, you know, he may be a dictator, but he’s our dictator.’ . . .  That’s going to change when I’m president of the United States.  (First Presidential Debate, held September 26, 2008 in Oxford, Mississippi)

Sadly, that has not changed since Obama became president.  The most stunning example is Egypt, where the Obama Administration has reportedly given $1.5 billion per year to a clear military dictatorship that tortures its own citizens in order to stay in control, but which also supports many U.S. foreign policies in the Middle East.  The Obama Administration refused to support the Egyptian democratic protests in early 2011, and Obama himself did not clearly call for the end of that disgusting regime until after its leader had already resigned.  President Obama has been a major disappointment for those who found hope in his promise to end U.S. support for destructive, but pro-Western, dictatorships, and voters should remind him of that in 2012.

Obama seems to understand that the United States has historically supported brutal dictators largely to guarantee American access to oil reserves.  He repeatedly stated in 2008 that his energy policy would focus on relieving and eventually ending U.S. dependence on Middle-Eastern oil.  He proposed two means of accomplishing that lofty goal within 10 years.  First and foremost, Obama promised to invest heavily in renewable energy technologies.  “I’ll invest 150 billion dollars over the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy — wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels; an investment that will lead to new industries and 5 million new jobs that pay well and can’t ever be outsourced.”  (Barack Obama, Nomination Address. Delivered August 28, 2008 in Denver, Colorado)  Not only would this long-term plan end reliance on foreign energy sources, but it would also help the U.S. economic recovery because it would create a massive new internal energy infrastructure that largely has to be built from scratch.

Sadly, the yearly federal budgets that President Obama has signed fall short of his campaign’s promise to invest $150 billion over ten years.  That figure averages out to $15 billion per year, but the first two budgets that President Obama singed fell far short of that promise.  The Budget for Fiscal Year 2010 provided only $2.3 billion renewable energy programs, and that only increased to $2.4 billion in the 2011 Budget!  (Budget of the U.S. Government: Fiscal Year 2011.  The entire Budget can be downloaded at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BUDGET-2011-BUD/content-detail.html.  The $2.4 billion figure appears under the Energy Department’s descriptions of spending on page 70.)  That is a long way from the $15 billion per year that he to implement if elected in 2008.  $2.4 billion is only 16% of his promised $15 billion, and only 8.4% of the overall Energy Department’s Budget in 2011.  That is an unacceptably low amount, and a badly broken promise.  Progressives should give voice to their disappointment in 2012.

Obama’s secondary energy proposal was to increase oil production from reserves already existing in the United States, particularly along its coastlines.  In order to end foreign reliance on Middle-Eastern oil, he said “that means, yes, increasing domestic production and off-shore drilling, but we only have 3 percent of the world’s oil supplies and we use 25 percent of the world’s oil. So we can’t simply drill our way out of the problem.”  (First Presidential Debate, held September 26, 2008 in Oxford, Mississippi)  Obama clearly showed in 2008 that he supports offshore oil drilling, but only within a larger plan of developing renewable energy sources.  Obama promised that new domestic drilling would only be one small piece of a larger solution.  President Obama has held to his promise to increase offshore drilling, notably by opening new areas to offshore drilling beginning in late March 2009.  At the time, he noted that this would be a short-term solution to the nation’s energy needs, but that the long-term solution lies with renewable energy development.

…I want to emphasize is that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy. And the only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and the long run. To fail to recognize this reality would be a mistake.  (Obama’s March 31, 2009 announcement can still be read on Democracy Now!’s website at http://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/1/gas_drill)

Unfortunately, Obama has given up on his demands for renewable energy even while allowing offshore drilling to increase.  Obama’s inability to push for renewable energy was best revealed by the failure of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, which passed the House of Representatives but was hardly even discussed in the Senate. (There were actually two different bills proposed in June 2009: H.R. 2454 and H.R. 2998.  Both were abandoned within weeks of being introduced in the Senate.)  Even with a so-called “super-majority” in 2009, President Obama did not support the Act heavily enough to push its passage into law.  The result is that offshore drilling, which he wanted to be a minor piece of the solution, has become the major focus of U.S. energy policy.

President Obama has not fought to fulfill the promises he made in 2008.  He has given up, given in, and surrendered his promises for a “public option” in health care, ending tax cuts for the rich, renegotiating labor and environmental protections in Free Trade Agreements, stopping support for foreign dictators, and investing in renewable energy technology.  The only piece of the 2008 platform that President Obama has actually enforced is the promise to increase offshore oil drilling, which conservatives mostly support.  Therefore, President Obama has succeeded in one promise, but given up on five others.  Progressives should send him a clear signal of their disappointment in 2012 if they hope to have an impact on future presidential decisions.

Beyond that, Americans should realize that Obama has repeatedly shown us how ineffective a popular, recently-elected politician is when they are forced to work within an overwhelmingly corrupt electoral system.  We cannot only blame Obama personally for his many political failures since winning the 2008 election; we must also accept the need to change our electoral system if we hope to change our most important government policies.

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