In the 1932 movie "If I Had a Million," a dying bank president gives a million dollars to each of eight people he picks from the phone book, and the film then follows each of the eight and how they spend the money. My favorite was the character played by the great, curmudgeonly W. C. Fields. Fields' character was always enraged by the behavior of other drivers, and so he bought a fleet of old cars, hired a crew of drivers to operate them, then took several along in convoy with him whenever he went out on the road. Whenever another driver did something that irritated him, he would point out that person, and one of his drivers would pull out of line and ram the offending car.
I've often wished I could do that.
I thought about this movie as I read a little bottom-of-the-page article in the Parade Magazine that came with yesterday's newspaper. Titled "Better Ways to Spend $1 Billion," the article reported that the current group of presidential candidates (19 at the moment) will spend at least $1 billion in their election campaigns.
Yes, that's billion, with a b.
The article goes on to ask how we might better spend that one billion dollars, and offers this list of what that amount of money would buy:
- Treatment and prevention for more than 150 million cases of Malaria in Africa;
- Basic health insurance for 250,000 Americans;
- Over 415 million school lunches for needy children in the U.S.;
- About 6,700 new, fully-armored Humvees for U.S. troops in Iraq; or
- Hurricane relief for the Gulf Coast (foreign nations offered nearly $1 billion in aid in the wake of hurricane Katrina).
Now, I don't know who came up with these figures, or how accurate they are. But they underscore a distressing point: that our democratic system of government is, quite literally, up for sale. Candidates for office spend vast amounts of time raising vast amounts of money from donors large and small...many of whom will expect some future favor or consideration in exchange for their generosity. Effective campaign finance reform is little more than wishful thinking, because the very people who would have to vote on it are the ones who have the greatest interest in maintaining the status quo.
In my humble and generally-ignored opinion, the only really effective campaign finance reform will involve these elements:
- Public financing of campaigns to a firm upper limit; and,
- A ban on private donations to political candidates.
Unfortunately, this will never happen. Any attempt to limit private political contributions will be shot down as an infringement of the right to free political speech and expression (particularly by the current ultra-conservative Supreme Court), and in any case, there is just too much money out there to be ignored.
All you can do is make yourself a well-informed citizen. That billion dollars is buying a lot of air time and print inches, most of which is policed little if at all for honesty and accuracy. That's why my recommended link list at the left includes a link to FactCheck.org, a completely bipartisan watchdog which helps you evaluate the truth of political advertising. I encourage you to read it frequently as we approach the 2008 campaign season, because you owe it to yourself to be as well-informed as possible.
Because we have the best government money can buy. And if you don't have enough money to buy your own judge or congressman, you can at least arm yourself with information.
And dream about all the good things we could do with a billion dollars.
Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.