Get money out of politics

During my career I’ve worked in different roles in both the public service and  commercial sectors. They both have unique challenges, though the differences between a large commercial and a large public sector organization aren’t anywhere near as big as many would think.

One aspect that is very different in the public sector is in the area of gifts or other types of remuneration from external sources. Here’s the thing. In every public sector job I’ve had it has been absolutely unacceptable to take anything from a commercial organization or individual for any reason. No matter how small.

Think about it for a minute and it’s pretty obvious why. If someone gives you a gift, whatever that is, you’re more likely to look at them more favorably. You may be tempted to make a decision in their favor when it comes to awarding a contract, you may be tempted to “look the other way” when that organization does something it shouldn’t, or breaks the rules in some way. The only way to do this is to remain impartial and you can’t be impartial if someone is “gifting” you something.

There are many names for this, but it is basically corruption. Depending on the specific job, organization and region the rules may be different, but it is almost universally frowned on and forbidden or controlled to one degree or another. Some places I worked you could accept such gifts as long as you reported them to a senior manager, other places it has been completely not tolerated and in fact considered criminal. Sometimes there was a limit to the monetary value of such “gifts”, sometimes a “zero tolerance” policy was in place.  Whatever the details of the rules, the aim of these rules is that no one should be allowed to “buy” influence from you as a civil employee, whether by paying you cash, or buying you lunch (or even in one place I worked, giving you freebies like company pens and coasters!)

It’s a good principle and one I’ve never had a problem working within. Sure, it’s not perfect and we still hear of cases where people have been paid bribes, sometimes very large ones. The point is though that the behavior is not considered acceptable. The expectation is that you as an individual have the morals not to indulge in such behavior and are held to high standards because of the potential power you have in such a position.

Now here’s the weird thing. Public employees don’t have absolute power; their authority is derived ultimately from the politicians that are elected to rule the country or region. It is in fact the politicians that have the real power. They’re the ones who make large scale decisions on where money is spent, where funding can be placed and where tax breaks or subsidies can be made.

So why is every politician able to accept such bribes on a regular basis? Not only are they able, they also routinely accept them. The entire political body is built on such bribery. In fact it is safe to say that every politician in the world benefits from such corruption (yes, even the ones you like and think of as being “honest”).

Follow me on this.

Every political organization has operating costs associated with it. Secretaries, campaign organizers, assistants, all of that election advertising, those TV ads or the radio spots or the Superbowl advertising. It all has to be paid for, and it adds up to a huge cost. The estimated spending for the 2016 US Presidential election is over five billion dollars! Which is double the 2012 estimates of $2.6 billion. It doesn’t matter which political party or persuasion we’re talking about, the costs are huge. And remember, that’s the election costs, there are operating costs on top of that.

Where does all that money come from? Well, it sure doesn’t come from the politicians themselves! (Remember the first rule of politics – governments have no money!).

The answer is that some of it comes from you and me. Many countries and regions provide funds for political bodies (a practice only slightly less corrupt than politicians voting on their own pay rises…), but the vast majority of it comes from “donations.”

Donations? The dictionary defines this as “a gift given by physical or legal persons, typically for charitable purposes and/or to benefit a cause.” Now who thinks that all these people and organizations who donate the billions of dollars to political parties do that out of altruism? Come on, don’t be shy. Hmmm no one? Really?

Everybody and every group that gives money to political parties or individual politicians does so on the expectation that they will get something back. Whether the right “economic climate,” a government “sympathetic” to their interests, or just simply one that will promote the same ideals as them.

The definition of a bribe is “to persuade (someone) to act in one’s favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement.” Donations with an expectation then are in fact a bribe. Pure and simple.

Every President, Prime Minister, Premier, or other state leader in history ever elected essentially has been bribed.

We see the results of this corruption every day. Whether it’s ridiculous “trade agreements” that give away huge amounts of power to foreign companies, or gas pipeline “deals” to jet aircraft purchases (we haven’t forgotten those F-35s, Canada!). You see it in unchanging environmental regulations on cars, lack of pollution controls on major (rich) polluters and in NRA-backed politicians refusing to even allow research on gun crime in the US.

While this situation is the norm, we can’t ever hope for rational government, for enlightened government, for corruption-free government. What chance has the person on the street, when facing the influence of the Koch brothers and their billions? The simple answer is none. People wonder how come the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer. They wonder why the great American (or Canadian or any other) dream has vanished-this is why.

So what’s to be done about it? My first reaction is to reach for the Heinleinian answer–ban donations of all kinds and make the politicians pay for their dirty habit of power lechery. Sadly, that is never going to happen.

But I have another suggestion, one that might actually be achievable and would change the face of democracy for the better for everyone (apart from the very rich minority.)

Most countries provide some funding for political parties. I suggest that we expand that to some reasonable level of spending. This money would then be shared between the various parties based on the number of seats they win. Let’s be extraordinarily generous and make the pot one billion dollars (frankly, spending more than that should be considered a disgrace) and perhaps two billion in an election year.

Not only would this curtail the mass drone-inducing electioneering to the benefit of all citizens, it would also provide the potential governments with operating funds to continue.

Then we make accepting any gift, donation, backhander, sweetener, or whatever else you want to call it, completely illegal–just the way we do with all other public servants. Anyone caught accepting such a bribe would be removed from office if in power and also gets banned from politics for life. This would mean that politicians would be more focused on the people voting for them, rather than the people lining their pockets. It would also set up the, not unfair, expectation that our political leaders are honest and beyond reproach.

Of course many companies and  organizations give “donations” for tax reasons. It’s questionable whether that is acceptable behavior, but that’s a different battle. So we make the election fund something that organizations can donate to, effectively subsidizing the costs of all parties. If more is donated than can be used within the spending limits, then the excess is used for worthy public enterprises such as education or healthcare. Sadly, I suspect much of this “altruism” would vanish when it couldn’t buy influence.

So who’s with me? Which country in the world is brave and citizen-centered enough to become the world’s first real democracy and take wealth out of politics?

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