The Massive Subsidy that Corrupts American Democracy

One of the key reasons that the American political system is so corrupt is because it is so expensive to run election campaigns. And one of the key reasons that campaigns are so costly is because political advertising on television is so expensive.

How bad is it? The latest word is about $3 billion. Local TV stations alone are expected to reap between $2.5 billion and $3.3 billion in political advertising in 2012, according to Ken Goldstein, who tracks political spending for Kantar Media CMAG. This represents about half of all the money that candidates and interest groups are likely to raise in the election cycle. All told, local TV stations are expected to siphon up between 42 and 48 percent of all the campaign monies raised. 

The perverse twist to this story is that the American people already own the broadcast airwaves. It's just that the airwaves have been appropriated by privately owned commercial broadcasters, who use them for free and with virtually no FCC oversight. Broadcasters don't have public-service obligations such as the Fairness Doctrine or minimal standards of educational programming, local news or children's programming. (Haven't you heard? The “free market” = “public service.”) These stations then turn around and charge candidates exorbitant sums to buy back fractional access to the airwaves to carry on the most basic exercise in democracy, elections.

Of course, this subsidy is only a fraction of the total subsidy to broadcasting, which has been estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars.  So we pay twice – first, by losing control over our own airwaves, and a second time, by opening the door to the corruption of elections.  Because airtime is so artificially scarce and expensive -- a singular public platform taken over by private commercial interests -- citizens have been essentially shut out of our own democracy.  This is hardly breaking news, but in these cyncial times we are losing sight of such facts.  One pathology – the enclosure of the airwaves – has given rise to a deeper one, the corruption of campaigns and Congress.

This whole dynamic resembles the appropriation of taxpayer-financed drug research.  As taxpayers we pay for billions in risky, path-breaking drug research via the National Institutes for Health....and then the drug discoveries are essentially given away to drug companies who do a few clinical trials, patent the results and charge us exorbitant rates for the drugs.

My friend Peter Barnes, the entrepreneur, discovered that taking a privately held company public immediately increases the value of a company by about 30 percent. Where does this instant increase of value come from? From us. We pay for a regulatory apparatus, a court system and other legal institutions that assure certain rules of transparency, fairness and trustworthiness. This enables a reliable public market to function. A company is instantly worth 30 percent more when it goes public because its shares can be traded on a reliable, publicly regulated stock exchange that people trust.  Again, our public investments at work.

The point is that we citizens are already underwriting some of the most important infrastructure costs of “free enterprise.” Don't you think we should be reaping some of the upside gains from our investments? Instead, we get shouted down by Rupert Murdoch's Fox News stooges and Republican ideologues who clamor for even greater privatization of the shared wealth that remains (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, public services).  Democrats, torn between their former identities as public defenders and their fealty to corporate donors, are generally too conflicted to stand up and be counted. 

It's time to reverse the tables and start demanding that “private” corporations pay for their subsidized or free use of the common wealth. Until we hear such a full-throated defense of what is ours and an attack on this quiet dispossession, the drive to privatize our common wealth and dispossess people will continue unabated.