I went to the doctor's office the other day for a check-up. My doctor entertains me. In between telling me that I am too fat, need more exercise and that my blood pressure is too high, he discusses politics.
He tells me Obamacare is going to be detrimental to healthcare in the United States. He says the system is simply not engineered to operate under the rules it will impose. I am never sure how to respond to his assertions; I usually suggest that he should have faith in the depth of knowledge and understanding of the true experts in the healthcare industry - politicians.
It's usually about that time that he asks when I last had my prostate checked.
In my doctor's waiting room, he offers an eclectic collection of reading materials. I found one article in particular rather amusing. It discussed a campaign finance reform proposal and advocated for a system that would limit campaign donations to a candidate, but the candidate could then supplement the donations with public funds that amount to even more than the contributions he or she raised.
As I read this article, an odd thought struck me. Maclean's doesn't print on newsprint - so what Canadian publication was I reading? I flipped to the cover, discovered it was the Buffalo News, and my amusement was quickly replaced by anger. (And my doctor wonders why my blood pressure is high.)
I wonder what children learn in school nowadays. Initially, they are probably taught to not trust people who use the word "nowadays." When I went to school, I learned America was about freedom and opportunity. People were clamoring to come here to work hard and create their own American dream. We were told that we should likewise work hard and earn success, and it helps everyone. A rising tide lifts all boats. I have a feeling that sentiment would seem trite in schools today. If nothing else, it is certainly contrary to the lessons learned by reading newspapers.
For the past several months, President Obama has worked into every speech the sound bite that government should take more money from the wealthy and the well connected. Spending cuts are not the solution to our ballooning debt; spending more is. For those apoplectic readers out there, I am aware of the sequestration cuts, although not through personal experience. I read about them in the newspaper. Despite sequestration, we are still spending more money than we have. We must borrow money to cover our daily expenses - we are confronting our debt by spending more money than we have. Regardless, the answer proposed by the President is to take more money from people who earn more money than me. This does not inspire me to want to make more money, or to work harder or take the risks necessary to make more money. Although I do not agree with this approach to governance, I understand the retionalization. It is difficult to say "no" to people who ask for money, especially to those who express an immediate need.
However, when you add this governing approach to the campaign finance plan now proposed, along with other ideas floating around Washington, Albany and Erie County Hall, a philosophy emerges - wealth must be punished. Although wealth is necessary according to the spending approach to prosperity, those who achieve wealth must support an increasingly large burden to fund those who are either unable or unwilling to achieve wealth. If there were less wealth, we would have to increase taxes on the middle class. And, since that would not be a popular thing to do, we would just change the definition of who is wealthy.
In this emerging philosophy, it is not enough to take more money from high earners. We must also tell wealthy people how they can spend their cash. That is what the campaign finance "reformers" are doing. They want to tell people that they can spend money to support candidates to be their voice in government, but only to a certain cap. On top of it, candidates will receive considerable public funding.
Where does the public funding come from? From taxpayers, especially those who pay higher taxes.
High earners will automatically be supporting candidates who they may not wish to be elected, and they will be prohibited from supporting candidates who they do support beyond a certain level. Workers who are forced to be members of a union are allowed to opt out of having their dues used to support candidates who they do not personally support. Under the plan outlined in the Buffalo News, taxpayers are not.
I have an alternate "reform" proposal. Let me preface it by saying that I do not support this proposal, because I do not like to tell people how they should be allowed to spend their money. But, for the sake of public discourse, let's approach campaign donations the same way that we approach taxes: let's limit campaign contributions to a percentage of income. Further, people who pay income taxes at a higher rate will be allowed to contribute at a higher rate. People who pay lower income taxes will be limited to contributing at a lower rate. People who don't pay income taxes will not be allowed to make financial contributions at all.
People refer to such a taxation system as "progressive." Perhaps we should consider a progressive campaign finance system.
Money is very important to most political campaigns, but it doesn't have to be. In fact, it shouldn't be. Money is used to fill up advertising slots on television to the point where you forget which cola is your favorite or who has the best cell phone plan. Money is used to fill your mailbox with pictures of smiling heroes or glowering villains. Money is used to turn lush green lawns into seas of red, white and blue signs. Money is all used to plant a name into a voter's head and hope that said voter remembers that name favorably on Election Day.
In short, money is used to take advantage of a voter's lack of knowledge about whom he or she is selecting as his or her representative. The real issue is not campaign finance - it is voter education.
As most political hacks tell me, it is very difficult to get firmly decided voters to change their minds. Money does not change that. Money is aimed at people that are not strongly committed to a candidate, or strongly opposed to another. It is used to shout snappy slogans and sound bites and attach them to a name. Limiting money will limit political noise and force candidates to get their name out more efficiently. However, slogans and sound bites do not really educate a voter about the issues any more than limiting money makes the election process better. What is needed is better voter education.
In our society, universal adult suffrage is a right. This right comes with no responsibilities attached. A voter can choose a candidate based on issues, looks or even a toss of a coin. Without the acceptance of a responsibility of voters to research candidates, it is a flawed system.
Limiting money will not fix these flaws. I am not suggesting that voters be required to take a course, pass a test or in some other way prove that they have educated themselves about candidates. That is the antithesis of freedom as outlined in our Constitution and its amendments. Nor am I suggesting that the government spend considerable sums on voter education. Once a voter wants to learn more about a candidate, there are many resources to turn to, including television, newspapers, the League of Women Voters and the Internet, to name just a few.
Voters simply need to become engaged in the process and understand how their government works. We learn this in elementary and high school. Voters need to decide what issues are important and how each candidate will address the issues and discuss the issues with their family, friends and neighbors, regardless of what Miss Manners may politely suggest. If voters were truly engaged and educated, political campaigns would not be so expensive.
Advocates of campaign finance reform argue that the need is heightened by the recent arrest of downstate New York State Assemblyman Eric Stevenson. He is accused of accepting $20,000 in cash bribes to influence the awarding of projects in his district. The reform proposals being offered will not prevent that from occurring. I doubt Stevenson claimed the "donation" on his campaign finance disclosure form. If anything, limiting campaign contributions will increase the incentive for individuals or businesses who wish to offer bribes to do so, because they will not spend their governmental advocacy budgets on financing elections. Most politicians do not accept bribes out of necessity; they do so out of greed. Limiting campaign contributions will not limit that greed.
Encouraging voter education is a difficult task. People claim to be too busy to research candidates. Or they are too uncomfortable to discuss politics with others. The political system is overwhelming; their vote does not matter. These are all just excuses to avoid responsibility. Apparently, responsibility is a virtue taught to schoolchildren, not to adults.
As it turns out, freedom is free, if you don't want to pay for it. Hard work and success is a suggestion, but should be done at your own peril. And if you don't want to be a responsible voter, the entire system will cater to your level of apathy or lack of education. God bless America. We need it.
Comments? Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am also found on Twitter @PRLivingston.