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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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Plan for a Green Energy Economy

The world today faces economic challenges of a scale that used to be beyond imagination.  Modern industrial economies have been using oil as their major energy source since the early 1900s.  Political leaders and economists commonly believed that there was so much oil to be found, drilled, and used that worldwide supply would only run out in the distant future, if ever.  Unfortunately, researchers have been warning for the past few decades that the unexpected growth of industry has used up most of the world’s oil supply, to the point that oil is becoming scarce while the size of newly-discovered oil fields have dramatically shrunk.  Today, the world faces the harsh reality that we are running out of oil and will have to change the world economy from being driven by oil to using a new energy source.  Today’s worries over the pollution, health hazards, and climate change associated with fossil fuels makes the need for change even more desperate.

Scientists have been studying many different proposals for new energy sources over the past few decades, and these studies have picked up momentum in just the past few years.  Biofuels (liquid fuel made from vegetation), Ethanol (from corn), Natural Gas Vehicles, Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (HFCVs), and Battery-Energy Vehicles (BEVs) have been proposed to replace our reliance on gasoline (an oil-based fuel) as the major transportation fuel.  Recent research has proven that Hydrogen (HFCVs) and Battery (BEVs) are most efficient and have the least amount of negative environmental results. (Mark Z. Jacobson, “Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security,” Energy and Environmental Science, 2009, pages 148-149.  The entire article can be read at http://pubs.rsc.org/en/Content/ArticleLanding/2009/EE/b809990c)  However, the use of HFCVs and BEVs required the increased use of electricity, which the United States mostly generates by burning coal, natural gas, and nuclear material.  All three of these American electricity sources are dirty, contributing huge amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) that lead to pollution and climate change.  When one considers that coal and natural gas will also run out eventually, just like oil, we realize that we must also largely replace these U.S. electricity sources with clean, renewable power.

The following pages present a plan to do just that: build a renewable energy infrastructure that would supply all American energy needs projected for the year 2030.  The Plan assumes that most vehicles will be BEVs, so much of the electricity produced will go to charging electric cars.  We can generate enough electricity by relying primarily on wind, water, and solar power, all of which are natural, clean, renewable, and will never run out.  The cost for building such infrastructure will be high (about $16.5 trillion), but well worth the investment.  When compared to U.S. government spending during World War II, the last time the American nation faced a national crisis and successfully overcame it, one realizes that the American government easily has the ability to fund Green Energy construction without breaking its budget.  In fact, after considering the psychological, military, and economic benefits of not having to rely on oil, one realizes that the United States cannot afford to avoid building the Green Energy system for much longer.

 

Meeting U.S. Energy Demand

 

Research shows that world energy demand will be 16.9 trillion watts (also known as “terawatts” or TW) by the year 2030.  Research further reveals that U.S. energy demand will be 2.8 TW, or 16.5% of total world demand.  (Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030: Wind, water and solar technologies, can provide 100 percent of the world’s energy, eliminating all fossil fuels,” Scientific American, November 2009, page 60)  Jacobson and Delucchi also argue that the total cost of building a renewable energy supply system to meet all world demand will be $100 trillion.  (Jacobson and Delucchi, “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030,” page 64)  Therefore, we can reasonably estimate the cost of building such a system in the United States alone from these three vital statistics, as the table below shows.

Energy Demand and Infrastructure Costs

Measure                                                   World                     U.S.

Energy Demand in 2030                 16.9 TW             2.8 TW

Percentage of World Demand        100%                   16.5%

Infrastructure Costs (trillion)        $100                    $16.5

According to recent projections, building a worldwide renewable energy system would cost $100 trillion.  If the United States demands 16.5% of world energy, then it will probably cost about $16.5 trillion to construct in the U.S. alone.  That is a huge cost, but within reach once we start planning on how to get the money.

 

Raising the Money for Green Energy Investment

 

$16.5 trillion is an intimidating amount of money, about the size of the entire U.S. economy today.  The Federal government is the only body capable of raising so much cash, but the government’s total Debt is already 100% of its economy – which worries many economists.  Therefore, government should not attempt to borrow the money.  Government must find other means of paying for building the massive Green Energy infrastructure, even when we consider that we could break the $16.5 trillion up into ten years of spending at $1.65 trillion per year.  Several options to raise the money exist.

The best funding option is to raise taxes on a group of people that can afford to pay a slight increase and who have enough overall wealth to fund the Green Energy project.  We could raise a 2% tax on Wall Street transaction that would give the government an estimated $1.4 trillion per year.  That leaves $250 billion.  That last amount can be found by creating a $20 tax on every metric ton of carbon pollution created by the fossil fuel industry – which would raise about $118 billion per year while also giving an incentive for energy companies to move away from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity.  That would leave about $132 billion in money to be found per year, which could be taken from the estimated $1.179 trillion per year in revenue raised from a Fair Tax code proposed in the Plan for a Rational Budget (pages 39-42).  In total, we can fully fund the Green Energy project by creating the following system:

Sources of Green Energy Funding

Source                                           Tax Rate                 Revenue (billions $)

Wall Street Tax                              2%                                    1,400

Carbon Tax                            $20/metric ton                        118

Fair Tax Contribution                                                               132

Total                                                                                              1,650

The Wall Street Transaction Tax is capable of raising the $1.65 trillion per year needed to building the Green Energy infrastructure in ten years.  A 2% tax will not destroy the Wall Street class of wealth that currently dominates much of American politics while paying little in current taxes.  Most of the rest of the country pays about 7% in sales taxes, so Wall Street should not complain about paying a 2% tax for 10 years.  In fact, a 2% tax on Wall Street Transactions would mean that an investor looking to buy $10,000 worth of stock would only have to pay $200 in tax!  Such a small fee is obviously affordable to for the rich and will pay most of the cost of building a renewable energy system that will benefit all Americans.  The remaining $250 billion per year can be raised by a new carbon emissions tax and by taking the last leftover amount from the increase in federal revenue if we implement a new, fair tax system suggested in the Plan for a Rational Budget.

The money is there.  We just need to build the political will to tax it and use it for a Green Energy project that will improve the lives of all Americans.  We know that such national will exists because we have seen examples of it during past national emergencies, most clearly and powerfully during World War Two.

 

The Nation at War

 

The United States won World War II so decisively because its population largely believed that the war was forced upon them and that it was necessary to rid the world of dictatorship.  Building an expensive and ambitious renewable energy system will require a similar amount of motivation and dedication from most Americans.  American soldiers fought World War II on real battlefields while the American “homefront” fought on a moral battlefield against enemies they viewed as evil.  Americans were particularly motivated by a rage against Japan for its sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941 (which many still use to justify the destruction of 67 major Japanese cities during the war and the atomic bombings of two more Japanese cities in 1945).  Americans understand that the United States today is faced with similar sneak attacks in the form of international terrorism that struck on September 11, 2001.  Middle-Eastern terrorists are obviously motivated by a desire to force the U.S. to end its meddling in Middle-Eastern countries.  Such meddling is only done to guarantee American access to Middle-Eastern oil reserves, so the best way to end that meddling is to build a domestic U.S. energy production network.  In short, we can defeat Middle-Eastern terrorism by investing in the Green Energy Plan, building an internal energy system, and withdrawing from the Middle-East – which would be far easier, productive, and humane than simply bombing terrorist groups into surrender.

Americans believed in the 1940s war effort because they wanted to save the world from Fascism and dictatorship.  Similarly, today’s Americans should realize that the oil economy creates possibly larger threats to human freedom because reliance on oil has clearly created nearly all of the United States’ current wars.  Oil is also getting more scarce, which means that energy prices (particularly gasoline) will rise dramatically.  Using oil has harmed humanity through pollution’s effects on human health and climate change.  Like World War Two, Americans should view the creation of a Green Energy system as a battle for the future of human freedom from war, scarcity, poverty, and health and environmental damage.

These ideas have been pointed out for many years, even by political leaders.  Even a U.S. president made these comparisons as far back as 1977.  President Jimmy Carter called energy conservation and rebuilding proposals “the moral equivalent of war” (Jimmy Carter, Address to the Nation on Energy, April 18, 1977, which can be read and watched at http://millercenter.org/scripps/archive/speeches/detail/3398).  We can and must win that war in the next 10 years.  We know how much energy we will need, we know the technology already exists to meet those needs, we know how to pay for building the infrastructure, and we know that Americans have risen above similar national challenges in the past.  We only lack the ability to force our political leaders to put the plan into effect.  We may have to change the U.S. electoral and budget systems to gain that power over our politicians.  My suggestions for such changes can be read for free at www.machineryofpolitics.com

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