McCutcheon, Money and Democracy

The recent decision by the Supreme Court in the McCutcheon case is another ruling that ensures a greater influence of money in politics and ultimately weakens American democracy. Anybody who follows American politics, and particularly elections, with even moderate interest knows that money has always played a major role in our political system, and that in recent years, primarily because of the Citizens United case, it has grown to play a bigger role. Stories of massive independent expenditures, candidates spending most of their time raising money and building relationships with wealthy individuals and the troubling influence of powerful PACs on the political process are unavoidable and an important part of our political system.

Nonetheless, many observers of politics might not be aware that the media, not necessarily deliberately, consistently understates the role of money in politics. Those that work in politics have internalized this reality so much that they no longer even remark on it, while many outside of politics are now always aware of where to look to get the full picture of the role of money in politics. Money influences elections, as everybody knows, but the influence of money in things like drafting legislation in committees, state laws and regulations, appointments to government offices or regulatory bodies,is not as broadly understood. It is also probably more nefarious. Elections are public events with a fair amount of transparency; these other parts of government are not.

The McCutcheon ruling addresses, and overturns, a specific piece of campaign finance law. Until this decision individuals were restricted in the total they could give to a political party in a year. This total included giving to various party funds as well as directly to candidates and was capped at $123,200. It is immediately noticeable that this is a lot of money. The overwhelming majority of Americans were never directly effected by this law simply because most of us do not have a spare $120,000 and change to give to political candidates and parties in a single year. Indirectly, of course, many Americans were effected by the restriction because it placed some, albeit modest, limits on the influence of the very wealthy on the political process.

The McCutcheon ruling changes this in several ways. First, it removes the restriction on total contributions, thus freeing the wealthiest Americans to have an even more outsized impact on the political process. Those few Americans who have extreme wealth can now use this wealth to more directly influence political parties. The impact this will have on the lawmaking process is unclear. It is true that there are extremely wealthy individuals who have liberal and conservative views, but it is also true that some views, for example support for labor unions or increased assistance to poor people, are less common among the very wealthy. There are few ultra-wealthy individuals willing to commit enormous resources to progressive economic policies, and many who will support conservative economic policies.

The other impact of the Supreme Court ruling is less direct, but possibly more profound. The ruling sends a completely unambiguous message that as the Supreme Court sees money as a form of speech. We have heard this, in one form or another, that the absurdity of that notion is rarely questioned. It should be. In a democratic system, equality between citizens is a bedrock foundational principle. This is why every person gets one votes regardless of gender, race, status or wealth, and also why countries that do not meet this criteria can never be fully democratic.

Equating money, which is never distributed equally, with speech undermines this concept. Money is a means to amplify speech, and our campaign finance system has made money more important than it has to be in that regard, but it is not speech. Spending money how one wants is not the same as saying what one wants. We place many limits on how people can spend money. They cannot buy drugs, bribe people, pay people without reporting it to the government and the like. Similar limitations on speech would be a clear abrogation of the Bill of Rights. Limiting how the very wealthiest, who are already given ample latitude to use their money to influence politics, is another restriction on how money can be used, but it is not a limit on free speech.

The McCutcheon decision occurs in a context where income inequality has become a more significant problem that has the potential not only to damage our economy, but to have a negative impact on American society and politics more broadly. A decision that encourages the expression of this inequality in political life, and that tells an increasingly unequal society that those with more money have the legal right to more political power, in even more ways before,is a blow to our democracy that tells most Americans not to even expect an equal opportunity to have their voices heard in the political process.

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7 Unexpected Things That Can Make You Happy

"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are so fundamental to our well-being that our forefathers included these values in the Declaration of Independence. So, shouldn't it be obvious how to achieve that third value, happiness? Not in my experience. Often, the things that we expect will make us happiest fail to achieve that end.

Researchers discovered a prime example of this phenomenon when they surveyed winners of the Michigan state $500 Million Power Ball about their satisfaction with life. The lottery winners expected that the prize money would greatly increase their happiness over the long term. In the short term, the survey showed that lottery winners were indeed slightly happier. However, their average level of satisfaction with life soon returned to that of other Michigan residents.

The relatively young field of happiness psychology delves into why we often go about seeking fulfillment in the wrong places, and more importantly, points us to where we should be looking instead. Below are seven initially counter-intuitive findings from this new research that the BidKind team has found helpful in getting more happiness out of life.

1) Give to others instead of getting something for yourself. Experiments where participants are given prize winnings to distribute show that the more people give away to other participants, the happier they are. They are happier still when given a sum and instructed to give it away to someone they care about. So, when you find a $20 in your coat pocket or receive a larger than expected tax refund, instead of spending it on yourself, consider taking a friend out to lunch or donating to your favorite charity.

Buy your friend a coffee.

2) When you do spend on yourself, choose experiences over stuff. Initially, it might seem that buying something that you can touch might give you more enjoyment over time than a fleeting moment of pleasure. However, it turns out that the newness and excitement of purchases wear off. The longer you have had something, the more you devalue it. Meanwhile, an experience, especially one shared with friends or loved ones, is something that you can recall fondly forever.

Take a road trip with friends.

3) Buy it now and enjoy it later. Experiences, and even purchases, are even more enjoyable, if you delay your gratification. Studies show that the best part of a vacation can often be looking forward to it. Furthermore, the act of spending what feels like a lot of money on a trip or other big ticket item can be distinctly uncomfortable. Brain scans even show responses to spending similar to those of actual, physical pain. Don't leave the threat of that experience hanging over you as you enjoy your massage or anticipate the credit card bill from your last shopping spree. Instead pay up front with cash or a debit card, or even get yourself a gift card you can use to treat yourself later.

Evelyn Rose, 4, has been told that if she can hold off on eating this marshmallow now, she can have two later.

4) Enjoy playing, even if you might not win. We put a lot of emphasis on winning in our culture, but sometimes it's important to just enjoy the experience of competing with our friends or teammates and challenging ourselves to do better. An analysis of the facial expressions of Olympic athletes on the medal stand show that, on average, bronze medalists actually appear happier than silver medalists. The bronze winners were just glad to be on the podium and to have participated in the Olympics, while the silver medalists were focused on the gold medal that had slipped through their fingers. Whatever your sport, game, or activity, don't get stuck in the mindset of those silver medalists. Play to beat your own best performance, and for the enjoyment of the game.

McKayla Maroney as she places second in the 2012 London Summer Olympics.

5) Look for opportunities to earn the pleasures in your life. There is a reason that fraternities and sororities haze prospective members. When it is difficult to achieve some title or to join a group, people value that affiliation more and get more pleasure from it. The next time you want to spend a Saturday afternoon watching trashy TV, make a game out of it. Tell yourself you get 15 minutes of couch time for every chore you finish. Want to treat yourself to that scoop of your favorite flavor of gelato? Try jogging to the ice cream shop.

The Karate Kid earns his martial arts skills.

6) Do something that feels (a little) uncomfortable. If you are going to take up jogging, to the ice cream shop or elsewhere, you will quickly realize that running can feel pretty miserable at first. So, how do people keep up a jogging habit, or complete a marathon, for that matter? Aside from the endorphins it releases, it is deeply rewarding to run further and faster than you could yesterday. Experiencing a little risk can also increase your enjoyment of an activity, which is why roller coasters and fast cars are so popular. Challenges that require you to put a little bit on the line will lead you to feel happier and more self-confident. Try activities with appropriate, but not impossible, levels of difficulty or risk. You will find that the bike ride with the uphill that leaves you winded, followed by the slightly scary downhill, ends up being a lot more fun, and will elevate your mood.

Overcome obstacles.

7) Learn to live with less, and eliminate excessive options. Anyone who has ever dated online knows that having too many options and unlimited access to something can make you appreciate an experience less. College students given a large stash of Hershey's Kisses start to enjoy chocolate less than students who are only given one. When shoppers in an upscale supermarket are asked to sample one flavor jam, they like the product better when there are six flavors to choose from, rather than 36. If you want to experience more happiness regardless of whether you are getting yourself that ice cream or a flat screen TV, make your indulgence a treat reserved for special occasions.

Savor smaller portions.

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McCutcheon and the Vicious Cycle of Concentrated Wealth and Political Power

Inequality for all
Inequality for all

If wealth and income weren't already so concentrated in the hands of a few, the shameful McCutcheon decision by the five Republican appointees to the Supreme Court wouldn't be as dangerous. But by taking Citizens United one step further and effectively eviscerating campaign finance laws, the Court has issued an invitation to oligarchy.

Almost limitless political donations coupled with America's dramatically widening inequality create a vicious cycle in which the wealthy buy votes that lower their taxes, give them bailouts and subsidies, and deregulate their businesses -- thereby making them even wealthier and capable of buying even more votes. Corruption breeds more corruption.

That the richest four hundred Americans now have more wealth than the poorest 150 million Americans put together, the wealthiest 1 percent own over 35 percent of the nation's private assets, and 95 percent of all the economic gains since the start of the recovery in 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent -- all of this is cause for worry, and not just because it means the middle class lacks the purchasing power necessary to get the economy out of first gear.

It is also worrisome because such great concentrations of wealth so readily compound themselves through politics, rigging the game in their favor and against everyone else. McCutcheon merely accelerates this vicious cycle.

As Thomas Piketty shows in his monumental Capital in the Twenty-First Century, this was the pattern in advanced economies through much of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. And it is coming to be the pattern once again.

Picketty is pessimistic that much can be done to reverse it (his sweeping economic data suggest that slow growth will almost automatically concentrate great wealth in a relatively few hands). But he disregards the political upheavals and reforms that such wealth concentrations often inspire -- such as America's populist revolts of the 1890s followed by the progressive era, or the German socialist movement in the 1870s followed by Otto von Bismarck's creation of the first welfare state.

In America of the late nineteenth century, the lackeys of robber barons literally deposited sacks of money on the desks of pliant legislators, prompting the great jurist Louis Brandeis to note that the nation had a choice: "We can have a democracy or we can have great wealth in the hands of a few," he said. "But we cannot have both."

Soon thereafter America made the choice. Public outrage gave birth to the nation's first campaign finance laws, along with the first progressive income tax. The trusts were broken up and regulations imposed to bar impure food and drugs. Several states enacted America's first labor protections, including the 40-hour workweek.

The question is when do we reach another tipping point, and what happens then?

ROBERT B. REICH's film "Inequality for All" is now available on DVD and blu-ray, and on Netflix Instant Watch. Watch the trailer below:

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