Book Review: Dollar Democracy
“Legalized tax avoidance and regulation avoidance are not victimless acts,” Mathews argues. He cites studies (done in the eighties) to show campaign contributors get their way on how their chosen legislators vote about eighty percent of the time.
Mathews relates his own experience with corporate campaign funding as one example of how corporations get their way with politicians. In 1994 when he was running for what at the time was California’s Thirty-eighth Congressional District, ARCO PAC wouldn’t give him any money after he frankly told them he wanted to close corporate tax loopholes.
What Mathews calls "Dollar Democracy" resulted, hence, his book's title. He was unable to fund his progressive grassroots campaign because the non-profit California League of Conservation Voters wouldn’t give him any money, either. Despite giving him a 100% favorability rating, they decided he wasn’t “financially viable.” The reasoning was that since his opponent raised money from corporations and Mathews didn't, Mathews couldn't compete as a serious candidate.
Much of the book discusses how Dollar Democracy victimizes California’s higher education system which Mathews, being an educator, knows first-hand. Mathews argues closing corporate tax loopholes would provide the state with $90 billion—and with $5 billion, every community college in the state could provide free education. (Just think what could be done with the other $85 billion.) The United States government could gain $1 trillion by closing corporate tax loopholes. For $400 billion, all American colleges and universities could be free, with $600 billion leftover.
California could close its oil severance tax loophole without damaging its economy, Mathews notes, as Alaska, Texas, and Louisiana have done. He demonstrates how Dollar Democracy has defeated efforts to do so. Dollar Democracy is also how the Halliburton Corporation spent $747 billion lobbying politicians and in return got hydraulic fracturing exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Another notable example of Dollar Democracy, according to Mathews, may be found in the passage of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which was structured to benefit corporations--and they didn't like it anyway. He thoroughly discusses how Obama and the Democratic leadership caved to the healthcare industry’s heavy financing of many congress members.
Mathews observes, “The president never attempted to fight for a truly universal single-payer Medicare-for-all system.” As a result America remains the only major country with no universal healthcare, and Dollar Democracy allows corporate-funded politicians to get away with it.
Saddest of Mathews' many examples may be the effect of Dollar Democracy on Americans' jobs, as corporations outsource labor. They do this by either moving to third-world countries, or being allowed to import third-world workers willing to work for near-poverty wages, because that's all those workers know in their home countries. Mathews vividly describes how Chinese factory laborers who cut iPhone glass work in conditions very much like nineteenth-century sweatshops.
Corporate politicians look the other way while corporations outsource jobs, and for former Long Beach resident Kevin Flanagan, outsourcing resulted in his death. He was a computer programmer at Bank of America’s Concorde office. He committed suicide after being ordered to train his replacement—an Indian immigrant that a government program allowed the banking giant to hire for barely above minimum wage. It wasn't the Indian immigrant who took Flanagan's job away--it was Bank of America, with a little help from Dollar Democracy.
As a solution to Dollar Democracy, Mathews advocates public campaign funding (state and federal "clean money" laws), more citizen involvement, and more transparency. He suggests visiting the Web sites maplight.org and www.followthemoney.org for information on politicians’ support from the oil industry, for example.
Where Mathews’ book falls short is that it tries to argue every last subject that has anything to do with Dollar Democracy. It ranges across topics from labor to education to GMOs. At the same time it neglects to argue thoroughly all sides of public campaign financing. It needs balance, giving little time for any solution other than the movement to reverse the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.
Mathews does allow a counter-argument of sorts from Mark Spitzer, who originally was against government-funded campaigns. “I thought that the proponents were trying to take politics out of politics and that just doesn’t work,” Spitzer is quoted in one passage.
As for presenting a balanced argument, however, even the passage on Spitzer can't be counted. Spitzer had doubts but he changed his mind when he campaigned for the Arizona Corporation Commission. He’d have been vulnerable to conflict-of-interest charges had he accepted corporate money. He won, Mathews argues, thanks to Arizona's "clean money" law and nothing else.
Neither does Mathews say much about how politicians can win on ideas, not money, sometimes. He spends a considerable portion of Dollar Democracy discussing the campaigns of Paul Wellstone, the late senator from Minnesota who was outspent seven-to-one in his 1990 campaign but won on ideas. That actually may be the American public's best weapon against Dollar Democracy.