Rent-A-Legislator: A Buyer’s Guide

The Supreme Court has made some horrendous decisions. Three judgments are particularly problematic, and they have serious implications for all of us. Arguably, the most irrational ruling, made during the late 1880s, gave corporations—which are, after all, a legal fiction—all of the rights of personhood, but none of the accountability of citizenship. The second was the Citizens United decision in 2010 that declared that money is a form of speech. The legal argument leading to its passage was that corporations, being people, should not be limited in the amount of money that they can donate to political candidates or parties, as this would impose unconstitutional limitations on their first amendment rights of speech. The ruling permits multi-national corporations to give huge sums of money to political candidates anonymously, without any kind of transparency or traceability. Earlier this month, the highest court in the land virtually eliminated any caps on political donations in the historic McCutcheon ruling.

Contrary to the Supreme Court’s ruling, money is not a form of speech. Rather, capital has supplanted actual speech and the first amendment rights of citizens. In a nutshell: money has replaced people and public good in the algebra of American politics. The game is rigged, and most people, at least intuitively, know it. In reality, presidents, members of Congress and the House of Representatives are elected to office by perhaps as little as 20 percent of eligible voters. The majority of legislators elected to high office are beholden to corporate lobbyists who do not care what you and I think. Henry D. Thoreau reached this same conclusion 170 years ago. History has validated his position.

In a recent issue of The Guardian, Gary Younge wrote, “Spending on political campaigns more than doubled during the 2004 and 2008 election cycles.” I note that more than a billion dollars went into President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. Where does this buying and selling, this political prostitution, end?

Prior to the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon decision, there was a $123,000 cap that an individual could donate to political candidates or political parties per two-year election cycle. Today, wealthy donors can give up to $3.6 million per election cycle. Where does that leave the rest of us?

It is not a coincidence that corporate taxes have been decreasing for four decades, as have the taxes paid by the super-rich. By contrast, more of the tax burden is falling upon working people during this same time frame, even as wages stagnate and jobs flee the country.

Why should Shepherd University students care about these issues? Aside from the inequality aspects, think about rising tuition. Those who are most able to pay are paying the least and those who are least able to pay are paying the most. This is Robin Hood in reverse. Tuition is rising because states are contributing less to universities and colleges, ostensibly because of budget shortfalls.

The time will likely come when states no longer subsidize higher education at all and thereby deny working people educational and economic opportunity. But according to economist Richard Wolff, if taxation were restored to its 1970s levels, there would be no budgetary shortfall. This implies that the so-called budget crisis was contrived to impose austerity on workers. Think of it as regressive social engineering enacted by Rent-A-Legislator, Inc.

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