Buying A Government

The wealthy Republicans who recently attempted to buy the government of the United States for millions of dollars are sitting and licking their wounds. If you look quickly you can see them over there sulking behind the trees. There’s no doubt their attempt to buy the Presidency and the majority of the Senate didn’t work out as they had planned — this time. But they will be back and next time they are determined to spend more money and win. A recent article by Robert Reich gives the details of the last political campaign and the plans the Republicans have for the next go-round, but there are a few things I might add.

As Reich notes, Sheldon Adelson, who owns the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and has a net worth reported to be $21.5 billion spent around $100 million of his pocket change  mostly on lost causes this time around. But he knows about gambling, he has bottomless pockets, and he has pledged to win the pot next time. He has already started interviewing Republican candidates for the next run at the Presidency. Hold on to your hats.

Adelson (like the Koch brothers who spent $400 million of their own money in the last election) is determined to get a government in place that will make sure people like him are permitted to increase their already obscene wealth even more — to rid themselves (and the rest of us) of those pesky Federal agencies like the E.P.A. and regulations that are, from their point of view, an expensive nuisance — and from our point of view necessary for our  health and well-being. The Koch brothers reportedly support an organization called the “American Legislative Exchange Council” that funds politicians around the country to make sure they get into key positions in state governments and then in return push the items on the Koch agenda. The end justifies any means.

Money is power and it always has been. And there have always been wealthy men and women (mostly men) who push their own agendas and do whatever they can to get weak people they can control into positions of power. But the game has changed in this country after the “Citizens United” decision by the Supreme Court that eliminated spending limits on political candidates by individuals and corporations in the name of “free speech.” This has raised the stakes considerably.

It does appear we are playing with a stacked deck. Not only that, but the game that is now being played follows house rules and the house is owned by people like Adelson and the Koch brothers. It really isn’t fair, but our cries of outrage and anger will almost certainly fall on deaf ears. As Reich says in concluding his article, there really are only two viable alternatives to help us avoid the coming purchase of our government by the very wealthy:

As income and wealth become ever more concentrated in America, the nation’s billionaire political investors will invest even more.

A record $6 billion was spent on the 2012 campaign, and outside groups poured $1.3 billion into political races, according to data from the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics.

That’s why Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission has to be reversed – either by a Supreme Court that becomes aware of the poison it’s unleashed into our democracy, or by a constitutional amendment.

It’s also why we need full disclosure of who contributes what to whom.

In a word, if we want to stay in the game, “Citizens United” must either be overturned by the Supreme Court (unlikely) or we must hope that a Constitutional amendment can be passed to throw out the ridiculous decision that ruled corporations to be persons. And, clearly, there should be spending limits in all political elections. I guess the ball’s in our court.

The Cost of a Human Life

The latest on the killings of 17 Afghanistan civilians by an American soldier starts as follows: “KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — The United States has paid $50,000 in compensation for each Afghan killed and $11,000 for each person wounded in the shooting spree allegedly committed by a U.S. soldier in southern Afghanistan, an Afghan official and a community elder said Sunday.”

I must say, I am proud of my government that it is willing to come up with such a sum to compensate the families of the victims. It beats the $1,000.00 or $2,000.00 the Afghan government paid out for the woundings and killings (respectively). It shows how much more generous we are. But seriously? How on earth does anyone come up with any dollar amount to compensate a distraught parent for the loss of his or her child? It cannot be done. And how do we decide on the correct dollar amount for a wound? Some wounds are more serious than others. Perhaps they should have come up with some sort of sliding scale. Again, seriously?

I am reminded of the calculation Ford Motor Company came up with some years ago for the victims in fiery collisions in their Pinto motor car. Ford, led by Lee Iacocca at the time, got out their handy calculator and figured out how much each maiming and each death should be worth — and then decided it would be cheaper to run the risk of law suits than to recall all of the Pintos on the road to replace a part that would have cost $11.00 per vehicle. So they didn’t recall the cars.

Surely, this is the reductio ad absurdum of our urge to quantify everything from love to life itself. How much does it cost? How fast can it go? How long before the battery runs out? How much is it worth to you?  Look at the chart and tell me how bad the pain is from 1 to 10. If it can’t be quantified, it ain’t real, so we think.

I don’t know about you, but I know if I was handed a check for even as much as $50,000.00 for the killing of my son or wife by a half-crazed soldier I would find it totally inadequate. You simply cannot measure some things — like the life of a loved one — by dollars and cents. And you cannot quantify something like love or fear, but they are very real. We need to tear ourselves away from the prejudice that wants to put a number on everything. The exact sciences are exact because they are supported by mathematics. That is entirely appropriate. But when the social sciences start posing as exact sciences by using math in the form of statistics and “studies” and “polls” we have started the skid toward absurdity — which is called “scientism” and it accompanies blind commitment to the scientific method in all walks of life.

Everything cannot be quantified. In fact, many of the most important things in human life cannot be quantified. But they are not only real, they are the very things that make us human. This is not a plea for metaphysics; it is a plea for common sense, and the rejection of the blind faith we all have in numbers. They cannot tell the whole story.

Don’t get me wrong. I am pleased that our government chose to compensate the families of the victims of the shooting in Afghanistan. I don’t see any other way it could have been done — except to have the U.S. government commit itself to a total withdrawal of troops from that country. But this seems even more doubtful after the chaos stirred up by the shooting itself. And, oh yes, make sure the perpetrator of these crimes is justly punished. But even if we cannot see an alternative to dollars for lives, it can never be enough.