The Bitter Truth About Money and Politics

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — By now only five people seem to believe that money doesn’t buy influence in politics. Or, more accurately, they just don’t care. Recently the Supreme Court addressed the issue of campaign contributions in deciding McCutcheon vs. FEC. In the SCOTUS opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts and four colleagues held that money in politics corrupts, or appears to corrupt, only in cases of quid pro quo bribery.

In other words, you can have a politician on retainer just so long as he never itemizes the bill. For everyone to whom that looks wrong, it turns out you actually think it’s fine. You must have been looking at some other country where corporations get the same rights as citizens.

Of course everyone knows better. The voters know it, the politicians know it, people spending this money know it. And, whether they protest too much or not, the Justices know it. Politics matter, and when massive amounts of money roll around the system, it affects all of our lives in very real ways. Such as:

#1. Your Internet Connection

As we’ve covered here before, broadband service in America sucks. Although we invented broadband, almost every developed country in the world now does it better than we do and that’s largely because of money.

Since companies like Verizon and Comcast can throw huge checks at Congress and the FCC, broadband networks remain largely unregulated. The result is that although America has several providers, few Americans actually have any choices. Most neighborhoods are broken down into local monopolies, which the FCC refuses to break by subjecting broadband networks to regulation. Without competition prices go up, quality goes down and service interruptions continue.

#2. Your Cell Phone Service

Speaking of connectivity, the same issues with broadband are coming to your cell phone. It’s actually not that hard to provide inexpensive, reliable service, but there’s a reason why Americans pay more for their cell phones than most of the rest of the world. Thanks, once again, to heavy contributions in Washington D.C. the national wireless system remains largely unregulated.

Under traditional law, air waves belong to the nation, just like highways and rivers, and when you broadcast, you have to share the road. That rule was changed for cell phones, though. Like with broadband, the FCC refuses to regulate wireless data. That means bad things for phone service, and worse to come.

#3. Walmart Ghost Towns

Money in big politics isn’t the whole story, or even most of it. According to Kaitlin Sopoci-Belkmap, national director of Move to Amend, corporate money and personhood can rear its ugliest head in your town hall.

Corporations having Constitutional rights has really limited communities’ and states’ abilities to meaningfully regulate corporations that are causing harm,” she said. “Walmart has been successful at even getting city councils to not be allowed to talk about and say Walmart when talking about zoning and how their communities should be structured in terms of land use, because of their right to not be discriminated against.”

The result is that even when towns want to keep out stores that will gut them from within, they can’t. Corporate constitutional rights prevent any kind of laws that target a big box. Of course, towns still have the blunt instrument of neutral zoning laws, but that’s too bad because…

#4. Local Politics is Getting Dirtier

“My community passed a law in 2006 through the ballot initiative here in California,” Sopoci-Belkmap said. “We had seen two very expensive elections that were completely bankrolled by companies, so in response our community passed a law saying that outside corporations could not contributemoney to our local politics. That law stayed on the books for two years, but ultimately was overturned because we were sued in federal court.”

Local politics has gotten dirtier as the stakes have gotten higher, such as zoning laws that might keep big boxes. Companies freed of any restraint throw huge amounts of cash into the race for town council, zoning board chairman and board of education to try and get at your local wallets. As a result, you can expect the competition between your neighbor and your barber to start getting very ugly.

#5. Textbooks

Textbooks are a big but centralized business. A few large companies print the vast majority of books, and they don’t want to pay professors to write multiple versions. Instead, most textbooks are written to the standards of the largest school system in America, then made available in the rest.

So the races for Texas’s state school board are very competitive. Third parties pour immense resources into these elections to get their people in place, so that movements like the NRA and creationism can have their moments in the second grade sun. The vast amounts of money spent on Texas Board of Education elections ripple out and end up changing the curricula in Wyoming.

#6. Criminal Law

Prison is big business. The number of prisons-for-profit nationwide is expanding, along with the amount of money that goes into running them.

That’s bad enough, but the upshot is that private prisons have created a very wealthy corporate sector that’s highly motivated to keep as many Americans behind bars as possible. Private prisons pour millions of dollars mostly into statehouses around the country to impose minimum sentences and lock up more people. This goes double for drug laws, the single greatest source of incarcerated Americans.

So the next time you wonder why pot remains so stubbornly illegal in so many states remember: there’s a lot of money in busting someone for a joint.

#7. Your Taxes

Almost every tax break system for the last 14 years has disproportionately benefitted the wealthy. The more money you can give to the government, the more the government is willing to let you keep.

–Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his