Robert Samuelson’s syndicated column defending the deregulation of campaign finance has appeared in dozens of newspapers across the country this week. Samuelson has written down what he believes to be three “myths” regarding campaign finance law. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
“Myth One: The rich and corporate interests rule government through campaign contributions and lobbying.
This is absurd. In 2009, $2.1 trillion (60 percent) of federal spending went for “payments for individuals.” This included 52.5 million people receiving Social Security; 46.6 million on Medicare (many of the same people); 32.9 million on food stamps; 47.5 million on Medicaid; 3.9 million with veterans benefits. Almost all these benefits go to the poor and middle class. Meanwhile, the richest 5 percent of Americans pay 44 percent of federal taxes.
Does this look like government for the rich?”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but sure, sure it does look like government for the rich, especially Social Security and Medicare. As Robert Samuelson surely knows, the richest 5 percent of Americans don’t pay 44 percent of payroll taxes, the taxes that support Social Security and Medicare. The people who pay the taxes that support Social Security and Medicare are people who earn their income through paychecks. Since Social Security and Medicare are there, paid for out of workers’ paychecks, there’s less pressure on corporations to provide pensions and health care for their retirees, which corporations decreasingly do. Workers pay for it. Corporations benefit.
Medicaid as a program can tangibly benefit big corporations: just ask WalMart, whose employees are on Medicare instead of on a corporate health care program. Veterans benefits also reduce the pressure for corporations to pay health care benefits.
“Myth Two: Political spending is out of control.
Not so. In 2008, spending for federal elections (the president, Congress) totaled $5.3 billion, up 27 percent from 2004. Over the same period, the economy grew 21 percent. By comparison, Americans spent $297 billion in 2008 on mobile and landline phones. Neither party has a permanent fundraising advantage over the other. In the last seven elections, Republicans raised more money in four, Democrats in three.”
Notice that Samuelson quietly documents the acceleration of spending in federal elections before distracting you with other figures.
“Myth Three: Spending isn’t speech.
Well, try “getting your message out” without spending. If money is necessary to disseminate campaign themes, then limits on spending (“independent” or otherwise) restrict speech.”
I have some sympathies with Samuelson on this last point, but he’s being sloppy. Even if money is necessary to disseminate campaign themes, then money is a resource used to amplify speech. That makes it different than speech itself.
And money is not strictly necessary to “get your message out.” It may be necessary to “get your unpopular, less-than-resonant message out,” that’s true. But when one’s messages actually, naturally, match the inclinations of other people, little to no money may be needed for the messages to spread. Example #1: the Occupy movement, which hardly spent any money but which was so popular that police with pepper spray had to be called in to try and shut it down. Example #2: Here at Irregular Times, I’ve gotten a series of messages out regarding the political corporation Americans Elect without spending any money on the effort at all. People have shared the information when they’ve found it relevant. Can you think of any other examples of successful no-budget or low-budget political speech that’s been effective? If you think about it, you should be able to manage it.