Saturday, January 23, 2010

On Corporate Money

I've been thinking a lot lately about the recent Supreme Court ruling. After reading bits of the decision(s) I'm coming to the conclusion that, although the effects are likely to be nasty, it was the correct decision.

There were two arguments that I found persuasive. The argument that was made was simply that the US Government should never be in a position of determining "good speech" and "bad speech" and that political speech in particular should never, ever be regulated. If Rupert Murdoch wants Fox News to start espousing the joys of scrapping the Constitution and replacing civil rights with a pay-as-you-go system -- it should not matter whether he is doing so as a private person or doing so through his corporation. As to whether corporations can have First Amendment rights, it seems to me that they have to, otherwise it would be very easy for the government to shut down critical news sources. Giving watered-down FA rights would be worse than none at all: there would be the appearance of freedom without the ability to really use it.

Now, most people agree with this, I think, and object rather to a less-obvious logical leap: that the outlay of money is equivalent to speech. This is the bit that I've been thinking the most about, and I think that what the problem comes down to is the difference between saying "Money is not equivalent to speech" and "Money should not be equivalent to speech". I agree with the latter, but I don't think I can agree with the former: in our culture, for a variety of reasons, money has come to be considered a form of speech. Boycotts are the big thing: "I won't spend my money here" is turning a potential financial transaction into a political statement, whether you're objecting to the practices of an employer or trying to support the concept of local business or local agriculture. On the flip side, businesses and politicians frequently claim their revenues as a source of popularity, often legitimately: "If WalMart's so bad, why do they make billions of dollars?" or the breathy reports about "record-breaking" fundraising by a candidate, expressed in terms that clearly are intended to convey "$$$ == public mandate".

No, it seems plain to me that in modern America, the expenditure or donation of money is routinely treated as political speech, and the laws do need to reflect that. If and when that finally changes, the law should reflect that too.

The second argument is that this does not change the amount of influence that corporations have in the slightest, only the form that it takes. Where there is a will, there has traditionally been a way: Are you seriously telling me that News Corp has been hamstrung in supporting political candidates up until now? Has George Soros been frustrated in his desire to spend money in support of his favored candidates? Of course not. The current laws have merely distorted political speech by corporations, not suppressed it. Instead of direct endorsements, we've seen issue ads that dance around the issue of who is being promoted. We've seen executives fund-raising among their subordinates. Advertising during news coverage of certain political rallies (I'm still waiting for a story to break where it's alleged that advertisers pushed CNN or NBC to spend more time covering Palin rallies or something of the sort) or threats to pull advertising over "unfair" coverage of a favored politico. Make no mistake, any company that advertises during Glen Beck's show is making a political statement. Heck, sometimes direct support is the least effective option available, particularly if the corporation in question is hoping for the election of a week-willed feckless puppet.

Now, simply saying "nothing will change" is no reason to make large changes to the law -- however, in this case I think that removing the distortions from the political landscape could be a very good thing. Having already taught corporations to use the afore-mentioned tricks, I think they will continue to use them. But some at least will be more forthright and simply say "We support this candidate for this reason".

More than that, I wonder if the problem with money in politics is not that there is so much, but rather that there is so little. Political candidates don't just need to outspend each other to get attention, they have to outspend the latest round of advertising for the newest XBox or the theatrical release of Sudden Explosions 5: The Revenge. Politicians spend so much time raising money that its importance becomes elevated in their minds, they become convinced that they owe their donors more than they really do. Perhaps -- just perhaps -- the actual solution to the problem of money in politics is to have so much of it sloshing around that politicians feel that they can take it (and the donors) for granted.


  1. One of the things I have found myself wondering (with my admittedly small understanding of the matter) is whether the distortions on corporate speech pre-Citizens United were not, in fact, distortions in favor of large corporations. As I understand it corporations wishing to engage in political speech before this could do so, but only if they incorporated a PAC, something which takes money/lawyers/lead time; the new regime allows for much more ad hoc political speech by corporations, which seems to me as if it might allow for smaller, poorer, and/or less organized corporations to have more political voice than previously.

    (Of course it also means that the two months before elections, we will all be totally carpet-bombed by obnoxious political ads from all corporate corners. But this is why we have Tivo.)

  2. I don't know much about PACs, but after reading the Wikipedia article on the subject I'd believe that theory. Certainly their existence has done nothing to elevate the level of political debate.

    And actually, that is my one secret hope: that advertising directly will add a bit of class to the debate. With PACs and other similar organizations, there's a level of anonymity, and, well, John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory applies. With the ability to advertise directly, I'm hoping that some percentage of companies that currently work through PACs will use their own names, and as a result try to stay moderately classy.