Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Plague

Human beings, when faced with a crisis that threatens their survival, often exhibit what is known as tunnel vision.  We concentrate with intense focus on the immediate threat right in front of us, but our field of view narrows tremendously.  For our ancestors, it was about focusing on the predator that was about to eat us.  For police officers, it means focusing on the man holding the gun who intends to kill us.  The rest of the world fades away as our mind gathers as much information about the threat as it can, preparing us to fight for our life.

While this strategy has immediate benefits of focus and singularity of purpose, it also has some long term drawbacks.  One of those is not perceiving crucial elements of the battle which may be just outside the scope of our narrowed vision.  We just don't see that accomplice standing in the shadows, waiting for his opportunity to attack.

Simply put, sometimes we fail to see the forest through the trees because the trees are just too overwhelming.

Such was the case for me in my overnight immersion into the world of political activism.  As I spoke about in prior posts, I was, in all honesty, politically dormant and ridiculously unaware until February 11, 2011, a date that changed my life.  In the days that followed, many of my fellow Wisconsinites were in crisis, reacting to a swift, sudden, and extremely aggressive attack on labor rights.  We did the only thing we could do at the time, which was to fight back.  We occupied the Capitol.  We marched through the snow, one foot in front of the other, with 150,000 of our closest friends.  We attended rallies, and, ultimately, we gathered signatures.

I knew WHAT was happening.  The attack on public sector unions.  The venomous demonization of public employees, particularly teachers (You know, those people who spend more time with our kids than we do).  Less obvious things, too, like the giving away of state power plants.  Expansion of school voucher programs while defunding public schools.  The killing of the high-speed rail project.  And more insidious things too, like the phone call between Governor Walker and the David Koch imposter.  What I didn't quite understand at the time was the WHY.

Like countless others in my situation, however, I did something else in addition to protesting in the chill of Wisconsin winter.  I started to read.

I read about the alarming income disparity in this country, which is now the absolute worst in the entire industrialized world.  I read about the rise of think tanks and lobby groups like ALEC and the US Chamber of Commerce, and their influence in our political system.  I read about the growing insanity of a tax code that favors a select few on the backs of the rest of the populace.  I read about how corporations have shipped millions of jobs overseas without a hint of action or peep of protest from our government.  I read about how the financial industry utterly tanked our economy for its own gain and walked away from the ruins with a pile of cash.

One day I was at home after work when a friend sent me an email link to a YouTube video.  The subject line merely said "you have to watch this."  So I watched this clip, which is just over 4 minutes.  Rarely have 4 minutes of video elicited such a range of emotion in me.  I was stunned.  I was almost physically sickened.  I was angry.  I knew in that instant we had a much bigger fight on our hands than most of us ever imagined.  I had the answer of WHY, but the answer provided absolutely no comfort.

If you have gotten anything from my blog posts to date, please do me a favor.  Click on the video below and watch this piece in its entirety before you read on.

This little clip had a dramatic impact on me and how I would forever view the political fight in Wisconsin and our nation.  With instant clarity, the forest became apparent, and it appalled me.  All of the ills of our State and our nation, from extreme income and tax inequality to horrendous trade deals; from radical assaults on labor rights to defunding public education, were the result of one horrendous thing.

The influence of money in our political system resulting in legal, institutional corruption that is absolutely crushing the life out of our nation.

I don't know exactly why this piece grabbed me like it did.  I previously knew on an intellectual level that big money played a huge role in our political system.  Maybe it was the emotion and urgency with which Dylan said it.  Maybe it was the fact that I was hearing it with new ears, those of recent and passionate political activism.  Maybe it was because it was being said by someone in the mainstream media.

The video segment you just watched was remarkable in many ways, and created quite the internet stir.  This rant, as it was unfairly labeled,  came from Dylan Ratigan, a former CNBC reporter and Bloomberg News editor, on August 9, 2011.  For those who don't know what CNBC is, it is cable station covering the financial markets and all things money.  It is watched, I would guess, primarily by people who work in finance, and wealthy people.  I used to watch it until I realized 1) the stock market was rigged against an average Joe like myself, and 2) I would never be part of their club.  Ratigan was part of the club.  After watching the financial crisis in 2008, and the subsequent government response, he left his show "Fast Money" in disgust, and now hosts the Dylan Ratigan show on MSNBC.  He has become a tireless advocate for the push to get money out of our political electoral process.  Dylan's "rant" was the type of thing rarely heard on mainstream television.

The other man in the video, Jimmy Williams, epitomizes the phrase "know thy enemy well."  Jimmy was a high-level staffer for Senator Dick Durbin for 7 years, serving as Durbin's senior economic policy advisor.  After leaving the Senate, he became an extremely successful and powerful lobbyist, and was named one of the nation's top lobbyists by the Wall Street Journal.  Jimmy was at the top of the game when he had a life-altering epiphany: the realization that he was participating in the process that was killing our country.  So he set out to change it.

Dylan Ratigan and Jimmy Williams got together and founded Get Money Out, a foundation dedicated to driving money out of politics.  That foundation recently merged with another group, and is now called United Republic.

I will spend time in future blog posts discussing this topic at length, but let me share a few facts with you as an introduction:
  • We now have the worst income disparity in the entire industrialized world.  In the last 30 years, middle class wages have been stagnant, or going down, while the wealth of the top 1% has increased by almost three fold.  Four hundred individuals now control more wealth in this nation than the bottom 150,000,000.  Anyone who argues the American dream is alive and well is deluding themselves or intentionally deluding others.
  • It costs an unbelievable amount of money to run for public office.  In 1976, it cost approximately $87,000 to run for a seat in the US House of Representatives.  Today that figure is over a million dollars.  In 1976, it cost approximately $609,000 to win a US Senate seat.  Now, that figure is around 10 million dollars.   
  • The wealthiest 1% in our nation make 80 percent of the campaign contributions.  
  • In the 2010 election cycle, 26,000 individuals out of a nation of 300 million made 24% of contributions.  This represents the top 1% of the 1%.
  • In the same 2010 election cycle the top tenth of the top 1% gave an average of $29,000 each in campaign contributions.  This figure is higher than the US median income.  
  • Our politicians spend 30-70 percent of their time fundraising after getting elected.  Not meeting with average people, not drafting legislation.  Fundraising.
These figures should shock you.  I fear that they are so bad that decent people can't even wrap their brains around them.  Once you see it on paper, it is mind-boggling that we have allowed this to occur.  Think about it:  if the richest of the rich make campaign contributions larger than what most Americans make in a year, whose interests do you think our politicians represent?  If the top 1% makes 80 percent of all contributions, whose interests do you think our politicians represent? If it takes 10 million dollars to run for the Senate, and a few people donate 80 percent of that money, the only logical conclusion is that our Senators, and the rest of our politicians, are utterly and totally beholden to those people.   It is no wonder that our legislators are incapable of tackling the serious problems that this nation faces.  If they try, they will most certainly be fired by their corporate masters through the evaporation of campaign funding.

The importance of this issue couldn't possibly be exaggerated.  Money in our political system is the single biggest threat to our nation on any front.  While it is great for the 1%, ignoring the interests of the vast majority of its citizens will ultimately destroy a civilization.  We have seen this before in history.  Some currently argue that it may even be too late.

Money is a cancer that has infected every "organ" in our nation, but particularly our taxation, trade, and banking policies. It affects, in very real ways, our fundamental national security.  The statistics I listed above make it foolish to expect, or even hope, that our politicians will remotely represent the interests of ANYONE but the most wealthy.  Until we drive the money out of politics, we will not have a government that represents the will of the people, and we will continue to have a political system that is broken and sick. Unfortunately, with the US Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, the problem grew exponentially more severe.

One of the saddest notes to this, but also one of the most hopeful, is the fact that it doesn't have to be this way.  The other hopeful note is that if we fixed this issue, almost every other political ill would be solved overnight.  Quite simply, without the money, our politicians would be forced to represent the interests of the people they were elected to represent.

In future posts, I will discuss ways that the influence of money in politics directly affects our lives, particularly in the areas of jobs (trade), banking, and taxation.  I will also discuss ways that we, average citizens, can get involved and provide real help in the fight to drive this toxin from our nation.  In the meantime, I encourage you to visit United Republic's website.  Look over the website, and sign your name to the petition to get money out of politics.  Look at the various drafts of constitutional amendments proposed by a few brave lawmakers to try to turn this tide.  The situation in this country is desperate, and failure is guaranteed if we don't fight back.

To my winter soldiers in Wisconsin:  we need to focus on the recall efforts remove Governor Walker and his cronies from office.  It is becoming more and more clear that they not only exclusively represent special interests, they do so in a way that violates the laws of this State.  However, once that fight is done, we need to focus our efforts on getting money out of politics.

If we don't, we might as well keep our winter boots on, because we will be fighting this battle over and over again, with little hope of success.



  1. I am willing to wear my boots out getting money out of politics. It's the only thing that can save us as a Nation.

  2. Brian, good work here. That's it -- money, BIG money. That's what we are contending with. That's how we can fight two wars (and avoid the draft by enticing middle class kids who cannot afford a college education to join the military in order to pay for their tuition.) Not raise taxes? Not limit anything? (do you think the rich really want to pay their fair share?) That's why we don't have universal health care,free college education and schools that work. And you and I know of police departments across the country that are only too eager to repress public protest about all this. I will follow your posts as to what we need to do. Let's roll!

  3. I am so happy people are finally waking up in very large numbers. Thanks for your input and the "rant". I did pass it on to my politically enraged friends who feel as you do. We really are smarter than they think! Keep up the good work and support those who continue to need your help. So many are incapable of speaking truth (ie: children, elderly, animals, our precious earth are all affected) We will be able to live with ourselves when all is said and done for not accepting status quo. The Constitution is our creed!

  4. Brian, the way I see it, the Internet came along just in the nick of time. When one considers the velocity and intensity that money has corrupted our government through influencing our elected leaders in the last 3 decades, it becomes an overwhelming fear that we can't pull back or reign in the power of money in politics.

    Of course most of the money is spent spinning sophistry and spreading fear and loathing through purchase of media. It isn't a naive notion that politics hasn't always been the ultimate playground of corruption and special interests, but it is the realization that it has become far more insidious and pervasive. The costly mainstream media purchases used to spin the deceptions are the catalyst of the problem; and yet this new media tool of the Internet is potentially part of the solution, IMHO.

    We must keep speech free, access to the public square open, and promote voting as a national citizen's duty. Obviously, the only way those who want to represent the bottom 150,000,000 and even larger middle class added can compete with the media purchases of the special interests of the top 1%- spinning their agenda, is free and accessible Internet. We can't give up on campaign finance reform, nor public campaign funding at some level. But, even the Internet is under assault with complicated SOPA, PIPA, corporate sponsored legislation (currently being reworked).

    Emile Zola famously said; "the truth is on the march". But in order to keep it marching, we need an open market place of ideas and ability by people of big ideas to advance the human condition to be elected to our positions of legislative power, in order to keep truth on the march.

    You are a big idea person, Brian. Stay with it. You already have 30+ thousand page views in a short time of bloggin this site. That is a good thing... ;-)


  5. Brian, you might enjoy, The Powers That Be: Processes of Ruling Class Domination in America by G. William Domhoff. It is out of print, but well worth reading by anyone who believes in such things.

    Also, who's going to lobby for removing money from politics?