Paul Krugman riffs off a piece at The New Republic by Timothy Noah: Crankocracy in America - Who Really benefitted from Citizens United? It's a good read all by itself - but if you add to the mix a piece in the NY Times today from the Campaign Stops feature by Jim Arkedis and Lindsay Mark Lewis, Suppress the Vote!, well....
If you're worried about the impact of money on politics now that the Supreme Court has tossed out the rules - ineffective as they were - follow me past the Orange Omnilepticon for some really alarming stuff.
Noah's article looks at the effect of Citizens United, and discovers that while fears of corporations buying elections are not unfounded, the group that has really had an impact is best described as a bunch of hard-right super-rich pursuing their obsessions. The word used to describe them is crankocrats:
A corporate takeover of U.S. politics was precisely what many predicted after the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United. But, although the Roberts court recklessly invited corporations to make so-called “independent expenditures” on behalf of individual candidates, most corporations have been reluctant to do so. The Washington Post reports that less than one-quarter of the money given to super PACs in this election cycle came from corporations, and most of these were private. According to Politico, less than 0.5 percent given to “the most active Super PACs” came from publicly traded corporations.emphasis added
Instead, it’s rich crackpots who opened the floodgates after a lower-court ruling loosened the rules a bit further. Journalist Brooks Jackson, author of Honest Graft: Big Money and the American Political Process, suggests crankocrats may also have been guided inadvertently to super PACs by the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law’s ban on unlimited “soft-money” contributions to national political parties, which survived Citizens United. “A lot of these cranks previously funneled their money through the RNC and DNC, ... which at least had the sense to know that they needed to win majorities,” Jackson e-mailed me. “Now the crank money flows through independent groups instead.” Applying some Occupy-Wall-Street-style math, CNN’s Charles Riley calculates that for 2011–2012 the 100 biggest individual donors to super PACs make up only 3.7 percent of the contributors but supply more than 80 percent of the cash. If you give to a super PAC and don’t own a private jet, paint yourself a sign that reads, “WE ARE THE 96.3 PERCENT!”
Krugman makes the observation that this has been going on for a long time:
What I would note, however, is that to a large extent we’ve been living in Noah’s crankocracy for decades. There have been limits on the ability of rich crackpots to intervene directly in elections, but not on their ability to finance think tanks, provide sinecures for deferential politicians, and so on. And the prevalence of crankocracy explains a lot about our current state of affairs.emphasis added
For what the money of rich cranks does is ensure that bad ideas never go away — indeed, they can gain strength even as they fail in practice again and again. The notion that wonderful things happen if you cut taxes on the rich and terrible things happen if you raise them has a stronger hold than ever on the GOP, despite the experience of the Clinton tax hike and the Bush tax cut. Climate denialism gains force even as the planet warms. And so on.
The piece by Arkedis and Lewis looks at how SuperPacs are working out in practice. It should be setting off alarm bells:
The grip of the super PAC on the Republican primary season has been well-documented. They are wrecking balls operating outside the candidates’ direct control, fueled by massive influxes of cash from a handful of wealthy patrons. The millions spent by the pro-Santorum Red, White and Blue Fund and the pro-Gingrich super PAC, Winning Our Future, have prolonged their respective candidates’ rivalry with the front-runner, Mitt Romney, whose own Restore Our Future has bludgeoned the competition from Iowa to Florida to Michigan.emphasis added
And that’s just the start. In the general election, super PACs will evolve into full-blown shadow campaigns. This transition is already underway, with the super PACs supporting Republican candidates beginning to take on voter persuasion operations — like sending direct mail and making phone calls — that have traditionally been reserved for a campaign operation or party committee.
Because of their nature, SuperPacs are an invitation to the worst kinds of electoral abuse. The legal fiction that the candidates they're backing have no control over their actions means in practice that they have zero accountability to anyone except the people writing the checks. And if those people are crankocrats who believe they're fully justified in what they want to do, well... as Arkedis and Lewis note:
Super PACs are the perfect vehicle for voter suppression, thanks to two crucial advantages they have over traditional campaigns. First, they operate in a legal black hole of opaque disclosure requirements that allows them to disguise their activities. Second, a candidate’s campaign is shielded from a super PACs’ duplicitous actions by a legal firewall that prevents coordination between the two entities. These features afford a super PAC plausible deniability: they can suppress the vote while claiming to have done something else, and the candidate can easily disavow a super PAC’s actions.emphasis added
Check out Restore Our Future’s filings with the Federal Election Commission, and it’s easy to see how vague terms could mask reality. While a super PAC must fill out a form for every expenditure, each can be classified as “voter communication,” “media production,” or “direct mail.”
The devil is in what those terms might be hiding. “Voter communication” could actually be a robocall that targets African Americans, reassuring them that Obama has the election in the bag. A “direct mail” piece sent to senior citizens’ homes might encourage them to vote on Wednesday, Nov. 7, just 24 hours too late.
And even if the most outrageous conduct belatedly stirs up a response after the election, it may be far too late.
These are also key differences in accountability. When a candidate or national party runs an ad, sends mail or makes a phone call, those responsible for the activity are relatively easy to find and investigate. Even in that context, hundreds of irregularities take place every election cycle.emphasis added
More importantly, parties and candidates have reputations to protect, and want to live on to fight another day. Not so for a super PAC. Terminating one is easy: its officers file a notice with the F.E.C., which then certifies that it has ceased operation. The super PAC’s only requirement is to maintain copies of its records for three years.
That’s why most super PACs will disappear on the morning after the votes are counted. There is little incentive to observe election laws if you can just close up shop.
In the short term, we're screwed. 2012 is going to go down as the election in which American politics became the politics of money to the nth degree - and not just corporate money, but money from people with the power to force their delusional world views on the rest of us. Crankocrats in other words.
This is why we have politicians obsessing over deficits and slashing the social safety net. This is why we have politicians insisting on austerity policies that are making our problems worse, not better. This is why our country is being dragged into ever more extreme policies. It's happening everywhere the crankocrats can reach.
You may have missed it for example, but Canada under a conservative government has now raised their national retirement age for OAS to 67. They will be putting it into effect in 2023. Using the temporary economic mess of today as an excuse, they're adopting a 'solution' that won't have an effect for years for a crisis that only exists in the minds of anti-government, anti-tax fanatics! Are these same people with the long view in mind concerned about climate change, which requires action now to put off real and terrible consequences later? Dead silence.
In Spain, conservative politicians have decided the best way to deal with a shrinking economy and massive unemployment (and keep their debt holders in Brussels happy) is to A) make it easier to fire people, B) pay those who still have jobs less money, C) slash government spending, D) cut education, and E) start dismantling the social safety net. Only this way will prosperity be restored. Oddly enough, the non-crankocrats are not happy with this. The response by the government: more pain.
(Side note: Orewellian language at work here. Massive deinvestment in the public sector is referred to as 'savings' in the article. This is analogous to bleeding a patient on life support and calling it 'therapeutic'.)
Meanwhile, the inestimable Dr. K points out that Iceland broke all the rules to get out of its economic melt down and is suffering for it. Not. He also takes note of the continuing trend of tax cuts for the rich and cuts in education spending - investing in stupidity in other words. And while we're looking at crankocrats here, only the other day Doctor Krugman pointed out that they're busy practicing crony capitalism as corporations get legislation to order.
Atrios frequently observes that the world is run by crazy stupid people with a lot of help from the Very Serious People. Crankocrats are always railing about the danger of Big Government. And understandably so - who else is going to be able to tell them things they don't want to hear? Given the vast concentration of wealth here and around the world in the hands of the few, it seems like Big Money is a far more urgent threat to democracy than anything else going on.
Occupy Wall Street is going to seem like a bunch of harmless hippies as the pain and suffering imposed by crankocrat policies take ever stronger hold and provokes a reaction. (And meanwhile, a real plan for solving our financial woes and making the country stronger can't even get a hearing.) By the logic of "Stand Your Ground" gun laws, it seems to me the imminent threat from Big Money in the hands of crankocrats calls for deadly force: rates on the top tax brackets in 90% ranges, at least doubling the capital gains tax, putting a sliding progressive scale on inheritance taxes, and real public campaign financing.
But that's only if we can make it past November 2012 and put actual democrats in power again.