Friday, January 27, 2006

It Matters

Y'all (or y'few, as the case probably is) have probably noticed that my last few posts have been even nerdier than usual--more details, more numbers.

That's partly just me. I'm a dork. But it's mostly my fumbling efforts to find concrete ways to drive home--to really make clear--that this country's enormous resources and talents are often poured down the pisser to most of our harm. I keep trying to find specific, visualizable ways to make that case.

I'm aware that I talk about the Iraq war a lot. Probably too much. (And after this I'll try to stop. Honest.) It is, of course, a huge temptation as a subject, in large part because the Bush administration and its media fellators say so many untrue things about the war's causes and consequences. I don't like spin, I don't like unaccountability, and I don't like people who intensify the public's borderline hysterical fears about terrorism. But I guess most of you don't either, so I'm probably preaching to the choir. Or to the place where the choir was standing before they got bored and went to the rec room for donuts.

But the thing that I find really offensive about the Iraq war is how much it cost this country. That's why I have trouble letting it go. There is a cost in lives, a cost in credibility, a cost in our nation's moral standing. That's reason enough to be angry and sad. But those are difficult things to talk about concretely and are way more open for debate than the kind of cost I want to talk about here: the economic cost.

Joseph Stiglitz (the 2001 Nobel laureate in economics) and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes just put out a thorough study called "The Economic Costs of the Iraq War" (available via Stiglitz's website). Their study is an infinitely more sophisticated version of what I've been, in part, trying to point out recently, i.e. that this war has cost us and will cost us money, a lot of it. Their estimate of the war's DIRECT (non-macroeconomic) costs is a breathtaking $750 billion to $1.2 trillion.

That estimate includes a lot of things that most people (myself included) haven't been including in the cost of the war. Most estimates include only direct combat funding--i.e., what it costs to fund combat and support operations in Iraq. But the war carries with it additional built-in costs (e.g., health benefits for wounded soldiers, death benefits for their families, increased recruiting budgets to keep people interested in volunteering for military service, demobilization costs, interest on debt that we could otherwise have paid off).

Their analysis also makes clear to me that we have to factor in opportunity costs--i.e., what we're losing not simply by having started this wild goose chase for WMD--but what we lose by not having spent that money on something else.

What if, instead of inventing a threat in Iraq, we acknowledged a threat at home. With so many Americans uninsured or just poor, how many Americans will starve to death, freeze to death, or die because they don't have the money each year? How many people will die in gang-related homicides (American murder rates are way higher than all countries with comparable per capita GDPs)? In short, how many people will die this year in America who didn't have to?

And why is it acceptable to spend hundreds of billions of dollars abroad in the name (though not in the service) of "saving American lives" but not to spend that same money at home saving American lives? Is it because most of the people who died in the 9/11 attacks were rich or middle class and most of the people who die of poverty-related violence, curable and preventable illnesses, or exposure are poor? Is that why the families of 9/11 victims got multimillion dollar payouts to compensate for their loved ones' future earning potential while the families of the New Orleans dead got to watch TV pictures of their relatives floating facedown in contaminated water? I think it is. And I think that's wrong.

A Present Nuclear Threat in The Middle East

Right now, while people waste breath worrying about Iran going nuclear, there is a Middle Eastern dictatorship that has demonstrated that it has nuclear weapons.

And yet...

Nobody in our government seems to concerned about the well-established nuclear power in Pakistan.

Though, if you think about it, the country is under such tenuous control that it's dictator constantly fears being assassinated and despite that dictator's promises to help us catch Osama bin Laden, locals within his country have actually kept him out of our grasp.

When we went into Iraq, it seemed off that we were worried about WMD's there when we thought, fairly surely, that it was North Korea that really had them. Now, we're talking about how to deal with Iran when Pakistan is the country with nukes, the country so out of control that Osama can hide there and, as things stand, the country we consider our friend.

Not saying the Iran issue isn't important, it is. But it does seem like, over the last half decade, that we've always been looking at the wrong countries, despite obvious evidence that should turn our gaze elsewhere.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Build WTC Site Faster!

Tonight, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg told us what he plans for what will likely be his final term. For Bloomberg, this was an enormous event, as he has hinted that he'll be mayor twice and will also give up the impressive Bloomberg Media business he built beforehand in favor of a life of philanthropy.

To be honest, I kind of dislike Bloomberg because his vision of NYC differs from mine -- I see this as a place of extreme liberty and a place for libertines, while he sees it as some chaos to be brought to order and control (as Giuliani did, before him). The "order" vision," much as it isn't mine, has lots to to recommend it -- the city was, before I got here, once so chaotic that it might have become an irrelevant embarassment, at one point. If you want to know that point, watch "Law and Order" (any version) which always starts an episode with a heinous crime, noticed by locals who aren't sure if they should even care.

Or, better yet5 (because it's good) watch Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing," which will show you a picture of a dangerous and hazardous Bed Stuy, which is, these days (when last I was there, at least) a neighborhood full of admirable brownstone buildings with the finest of fine cars parked safely on the street. Race tension still exists there, to the point where, a few years ago, my wife at the time and I were denied an apartment there aren a great price and that had two working fireplaces because the African American landlord living below worried that her child would be allergic to our pet bird, but... honestly, that landl0rd had the right and if she perhaps lied but really was trying to rent to a couple like us but African American, it was an impulse beyond objecting to. She let us look, after all. She thought about it. Probably agonized over it. Wouldn't even have been a possibility in the "Do The Right Thing" days.

My point in writing this, though, is that though this city's racial tensions have subsided and though even the worst neighhborhoods have turned open to all, that there are things about New York that have been lost and Bloomberg, our current mayor, has pushed some good things into the ether.

For example, this has historically been THE major cirty in the US where labor and workers have a voice. But when our subway workers went on strike to get a raise that they hadn't gotten in years and to preserve benefits that others called "outdated," Bloomberg worked to rally a city full of people who have more in common with subway workers than government employers against them.

When it's come to tax cuts -- and NYC city residents get really burdened with taxes since we pay the nations highest city taxes and highest state taxes and the national taxes we all pay when most don't even pay a city tax -- Bloomberg tried to relieve the burden by cutting taxes for property owners in a city situated on such limited geography that it's just guaranteed that most of us rent.

And now, he says, about the World Trade Center site: "We cannot allow the Trade Center to be a construction site for the next 15 years, which the plan all but ensures that it will be."

Well, sure. We all want to rebuild their quickly. Most of us would have been most happy had, a week after m9-11, construction crews had built five towers, with the middle one built a little taller, as a message to Osama. Had that happened, at least the 8 million in our five boroughs would STILL be laughing.

But, let's deal with New York. The WTC site is owned by both public and private interests, so we have to work out the differences in vision shared by those parties. This is a union city, less than in earlier times but still union, so you have to give the workers (who will have to actually risk their lives to rebuild the site, the same way our military volunteers risk their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq at the moment) to get the buldings built and you have to deal with what 8 million people want to see erected over that tragic tomb. As an aside, a lot of people here, and some people I know, actually lost people during 9-11. But even for those, like me, who didn't lose people directly, we all suffered and have feelings about this. Memorable feelings. For my part, nobody I can name died in the WTC that day but I knew enough people that might have that I found myself checking voicemails and emails for them months later and I'm not even especially connected here.

This has been a rambling post and it was inspired by Bloomberg's quote, which suggests that expedient rebuilding is the answer. "We cannot allow the Trade Center to be a construction site for the next 15 years, which the plan all but ensures that it will be,” said the mayor.

Bloomberg is in his second term as mayor here and despite my disagreements with him, I'll admit that he's done a good job. But, he still doesn't get it.

Major projects actually move very slowly in New York City. They move so slowly that we're often held up as an example of a city governed less by needs than by beacracy, the trappings of government and effete sensibility.

At the same time, I think, what makes us move slowly and what makes us seem sluggish is a strength. This city does, more than others, take labor's thoughts into account. It listens, more than others, to local residence and even, despite the size of a city that is larger than some states, residents that aren't quite local. On top of that, our city has people who've put hundreds of millions of dollars at risk and also a local and state and, in this case, federal government, that has risked the same.

15 years for a WTC rebuilding? That thought alone sounds ludicrous and Bloomberg played on that. But, given the various interests who have the right to a say... well... 15 years would still be too long, but it's not the sin it seems. This city... 8 million trying to get along... so many interests, large and small... you just have to be patient with it.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Who Has Standing?

The ACLU has sued the federal government over the Bush Administration's secret wiretapping of American citizens. That kind of thing is, of course, why there is an ACLU. It's an organization that's meant to question any sort of government intrusion into the privacy of individuals.

But, this morning, the Wall Street Journal editorialized against the lawsuit and made a really hillarious argument: they say that the ACLU lacks "standing." To have standing in a legal case, the party bringing the suit needs to prove to the court that they've suffered some sort of harm caused by the actions of whoever they're suing. The notion keeps me, for example, from tying up the courts by suing the LAPD for beating Rodney King -- so far as the courts are concerned, that'd be King's issue to either sue or not sue over. Makes sense.

But, in this case, the Journal argues that the ACLU lacks standing because it can't prove that any of its members or co-plaintiffs have been wiretapped. That's a warped argument, of course. We know that the government has been wiretapping Americans because the government has admitted it. George Bush himself has not only admitted it, but has defended the practice. But these are secret wiretaps. We know they happened but we don't know who was tapped or why. We don't know who was tapped or why, by design, of course, since the taps were secret. So this standing argument is bogus -- it eliminates any possibility of a lawsuit from any American unless they can prove they were tapped and they would only know they were tapped if the government tappers told them which, of course, they wouldn't because that'd defeat the whole purpose of secretly wiretapping people.

Seems to me that when the government engages in a covert intelligence gathering operations of questionable legality that there's not an American alive who should lack standing. The issue at hand, after all, and an issue that we should be free to ask a court to decide, isn't so much whether the government wiretapped any one person but whether or not they should feel free to do so in the first place.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Lobbin' Bombs

I'm starting to feel real despair about this country's chances of dealing effectively and sensibly with the threat of global terror. The latest straw on this camel's sagging back comes from Bajaur, a Pakistani village near the Afghan border.

So, by now everybody who pays any attention to the news has heard that US missile strikes launched from Afghanistan killed 18 people in Bajaur. The strikes reportedly targeted--and missed--al-Qaeda's number two commander, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Locals are saying the strikes hit innocent civilians. Locals are furious. Pakistani government officials are furious too, or at least they're pretending to be furious because most of their "citizens" (subjects) are furious and because those citizens already didn't like the dictatorial, pro-US government.

Now, it's possible that Pakistan's Prime Minister (dictator) did secretly authorize that particular strike or such strikes in general but now can't admit it because his citizens would try to kill him even more often than they already do. And it's possible that the strike did hit some sort of al-Qaeda facility even if it didn't get al-Zawahiri. The locals probably wouldn't admit it if we had. So maybe those killed weren't innocent civilians.

But they probably were, at least some of them. You don't blow up buildings in a village without at least a risk--if not a likelihood--of civilian casualties.

Some people will say, okay, that's a bummer, but that's war. Yes, that is war. But the struggle against terror is not a war, at least not what we understand as war. For millennia war has involved a group of people living in a geographic region engaged in deadly conflict with another group of people living in another geographic region. That's not what we have here, not really. There's only been one place in which al-Qaeda has had a real physical presence and a strongly cooperative relationship with a nation. That was Afghanistan. We took care of that.

So now Al-Qaeda is exclusively a shadowy presence distributed across a number of nations, almost universally illegal even in those places where some of the populace sympthizes with it. Pakistan is one of those places, and its dubiously legitimate government is our ally in the struggle against terror. So we're not at war with Pakistan. What gives us the right to launch strikes against it without its official consent? (And this one wasn't the first--there had already been several in recent months.)

Let's imagine ourselves on the other end of this. A huge problem in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua these days is the growth of gangs. Those gangs are organized and led in large part by young men who went illegally to the US, joined gangs there, got arrested, got jailed, and then got deported back to their home countries. Back home, these trained, hardened, and almost unassimilable criminals pose a real and growing threat to law and order, maybe even to government rule. Let's say, then, that the struggling proto-democracy of Guatemala--still shaky after a bloody and recently ended civil war--were to decide that the gangs have become too violent to contain via normal police action. The Guatemalan government already understands the gangs for what they are--international criminal and terrorist organizations with no real allegiance to any one nation. So let's say that Guatemala's government decided that the best way to fight terror at home would be to fight it abroad. How would Americans feel if Guatemala started selectively bombing Los Angeles in pursuit of the gang leaders? Especially if those bombings started killing non-gangbangers? And if we found out that the US government had secretly authorized the bombings, how would feel about our government?

We'd be pissed, that's how we'd feel. In any and all of those cases, we'd be enraged. Almost nobody in America supports those gangs, which wreak havoc here as well. Almost everybody would like to see them put out of business. But even so we'd be furious if somebody else bombed us to get at the gangs. We'd feel that no matter what the gangs had done in Guatemala, the Guatemalan government still didn't have the damn right to bomb our cities. More than a few Congresspeople would want to declare war. President Bush probably wouldn't even wait for that declaration before calling in airstrikes on Guatemala City.

So why on earth would we assume that the Pakistanis--many of whom for whatever reasons see al-Qaeda as way more legitimate organization than we see these international gangs--will tolerate our bombing their country? How long will Pakistan remain our ostensible ally if we keep this craziness up? Do we dare find out? If Pakistan stops being our ally, it'll almost certainly be because fundamenalist Islamist anti-government forces depose Prime Minister Musharraf and set up their own government. And, you'll remember, Pakistan has nukes. Now, I ain't no expert, but it seems like maybe it's a bad idea to fight Islamist extremism by pursuing a strategy that greatly enhances the likelihood of Islamic extremists taking control of a country with 160 million grumpy people and an arsenal of nukes.

The strikes on Bajaur show what's been clear since the neocons starting using terrorism as a pretext for invading Iraq: thinking about the struggle against terror as a war is an inaccurate and counterproductive way to think. To win the struggle, outright military action is only one--and by no means the primary--tool we should be using. In fact, military force is usually a jackhammer when a screwdriver is called for. Yes, we need to have some of our highly trained and dedicated military personnel ready and able to engage in tactical strikes. But, as the Bajaur episode illustrates, we need other things way more urgently. We need reliable intelligence, real international cooperation, and a powerful, expensive involvement in bettering the lives of ordinary Muslims across the globe.

Those three are all interconnected. We'll get better intelligence from other governments if they like us and trust what we'll do with it. (If I were, say, Pakistan, I'm not sure I'd tell the US anything about extremists operating in my borders because I'd know that it would likely lead to more dubiously accurate bombings.) And if we behave responsibly and respectfully, we'll also get better intelligence from the citizens of other countries--and lord knows we need human intelligence; we'd be in much better shape if the mere idea of talking to the CIA (or to local police who talk to the CIA) didn't seem so treasonous and anti-Islamic that only the most opportunistic and unreliable people ever do so. (Think Ahmed Chalabi.) And that sort of attitudal shift will come more more easily and dramatically if Americans were to stop dropping bombs into poor villages and start dropping doctors, food supplies, aid workers, etc. instead.

From a moral point of view, it's always better not to kill people if you can avoid it. From a practical point of view, it makes sense to allocate one's resources with maximal effectiveness. For example, a Tomahawk cruise missile costs anywhere from $0.5 million to $1.2 million (not including the personnel and support costs to maintain firing readiness and targeting capacity). But it only costs $6,000 dollars per year to send a student to Dow Medical College, Pakistan's best (and internationally respected) medical school. So for every Tomahawk missile we toss into rural Pakistan, we could also pay for the full training of at least 25 Pakistani doctors who could go to those same villages. Or 18 doctors and 25 nurses. Or, hell, we could help fund rural schools that taught Math 202, Science 303, and History 404 rather than Death to America 101.

In fact, at those prices, for the $300 billion or so that the war in Iraq (where there was no meaningful al-Qaeda until we destabilized the country and opened the borders to al-Qaeda), we could have paid for the following: fully training 1.15 million doctors, 2.3 million nurses, 40 new medical/nursing schools (at $75 million ea.), the doctors' salaries for 30 years, the nurses' salaries for 30 years, and the new schools' $50 million annual budgets for 30 years. If we'd started doing that that in 2003 rather than invading Iraq, there would already be be thousands of nurses and doctors saving lives and improving health across the Muslim world.

Now, it probably wouldn't make sense--or even be possible--to actually train that many doctors in such a short period of time. Some infrastructure and job training money would probably do as much good. But a combination of meaningful health care, food aid, job training, and infrastucture construction really would help. Consider, for example, that so many people in Latin American countries feel better about Fidel Castro than do most Americans in large part because Cuba trains and exports doctors who work well and cheaply in impoverished areas of Latin America (and beyond).

This country's struggle against terrorism is ultimately a hearts and minds campaign, and bombs are of only very limited use in that kind of campaign. If you discount the blood and sweat in every taxpayer dollar that goes into every weapon used abroad, it's easy enough to bomb people. It's much harder to bomb the right people. And it's preyy much impossible to bomb people until they like you. And we need most of the Islamic world to like, or at least tolerate us, so that they can help us hunt down and jail those who hate us so much they're willing to plan our violent deaths.


For what it's worth, Pakistani officials are now saying that there were probably 4 or 5 "foreign terrorists" among those killed.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Author As Myth

By now, you've probably all seen The Smoking Gun's enviable debunking (note: link is to an excellent Slate article that summarizes Smoking Gun's findings) of the myth of memoirist James Frey. The quick recap is that Frey wrote a memoir called "A Million Little Pieces," about his recovery from addictions to alcohol, cocaine and crack. Oprah Winfrey, who had for a year decided to only pick forgotten classics for her "Oprah's Book Club," after being snubbed by the excellent novelist Jonathan Franzen, decided to wade back into contemporary literature by lending her name and influence to Frey's book.

In "A Million Little Pieces," Frey tells a recovering addict tale that's as graphic as a splatter horror film but that only seems as cheesy as one knowing what we know now. Turns out that a lot of his exploits, like fighting with cops, spending three months in prison, and blowing a county record on a breathilyzer were at worst fabricated and at best embellished. Either way, seems like Frey, rather than being a penitent abuser was playing the classic role of incorrigible outsider -- a kind of James Dean for the new millenium. In truth, it's hard to blame him for trying. I've done it. It's a kind of game where you exagerate your own exploits even (and sometimes especially) your stupidest or most embarassing or most chastening exploits in order to be the guy who's really pushed the boundaries of modern life. To really pull that off in 2006 is a tough feat, too, since the boundaries of modern life, at least in America, are not so strict as they historically were. I mean, we're well past the time of "Romeo and Juliet," where a Montague marrying a Capulet might bring death and tragedy.

What makes the Frey exagerations harmful is that part of his tough guy pose was to tell a whole lot of readers (his book has sold over 3 million copies) something like this: "I was more far gone than you'll ever be and I beat my demons on my own, through the power of my own will, and therapy and the twelve steps and all of that is bunk." Problem is, if he really wasn't "more far gone than you'll ever be," then he's peddling some pretty bad advice to people who have lost control and he's profited from it.

Heck, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" has always been one of my favorite books. But, Hunter Thompson never meant for anybody to take his advice on having a good time literally and his readers knew it. If a Hunter Thompson fan wants to trip they know not to eat the entire blotter of acid in five minutes and they know not to mix it with freaking human adrenaline. I'm all for author's building their own myths, and a myth should, by its definition, test the limits of real life. But, when you're doing that, you don't sell the product as a manual for living and you don't sell yourself as an example to others.

Consider Ernest Hemingway. The myth of Hemingway certainly grew beyond the facts of his life. What people said he could do, things like playing a pivotal role in the liberation of Paris during World War II while working as a magazine correspondent, is just a bit of fun and a way of making a normal person into a demigod. Were Hemingway to catch you travelling to Iraq as a journalist and trying to lead a battalion in a raid against even the least dangerous of insurgent outposts, he would think you were a moron. Enjoy the myth, learn from the myth, even aspire to become the myth, but live in the real world! Hemingway didn't write "The Old Man and the Sea," in order to inspire people to take badly crafted boats out into the ocean in pursuit of game fish. Sure, he wanted you to admire Santiago, but he didn't want you to mimic him. Santiago did what he had to do, in his circumstance. The only lesson is that you should bravely do what you have to do in your own circumstances. Had Santiago had a modern fishing trawler, a net on a crane and some advanced sonar, you can be damned sure he'd have used them.

It's fine, to me, if Frey wants to write a book about a character who faces the worst depths of human living. But, don't pretend it's all true if it isn't. The truth would probably have been gruesome and chastening enough, in any event. It usually is. A big trap in writing, I think, is the impulse to over-embellish when it's not needed. There's nothing wrong with embellishment, per se. I think it's a tool. If you cut it out entirely, there's no writing beyond reporting and literature becomes a collection of lists and mundane observations.

However, there's power in evoking reality as well. The good writer, and I'm nowhere near at this level yet, embellishes to elucidate but is faithful to what's real (and I mean "real," obviously, in a broad sense).

To embellish to be liked, feared or respected isn't really writing, though. It's advertising. It sells a product that's a persona. I love a lot of authors who have lived lives that don't measure up to the standards of their works. That's to be expected. One great thing about art is that it isn't life. If I just wanted life, I would never need to read. I'm living now and I'll keep living until I die, after all. I even like a few lies. Truth might be beauty, but a well-crafted lie, told for a purpose, can sometimes reveal truths that you wouldn't otherwise see.

What happened with Frey, though, seems a bit too base to defend. He, perhaps guided by his publisher, tried to capitalize on a still vibrant market for memoirs that other writers like David Sedaris, Dave Eggers and Augusten Burroughs helped to create. Further, and especially after he got Oprah's endorsement, he tried to capitalize on an age-old, best-selling gimmick in book writing -- the self-improvement market. Frey meant his book not only to be a revealing glimpse at a real, modern life, but as a guidebook for the reader. If you're out to give advice, it's not too much to ask that you be honest about what you know and how. The self-help book industry, from books about losing weight to books about making money or making friends, might be a racket, but if the authors are honestly giving the best advice they know how, based on their honest experiences, it's at least not a sordid scam.

I don't blame Oprha for being scammed though, as a journalist, I have to admit to some feeling some professional jealousy towards the folks over at The Smoking Gun. See, I tried to read "A Million Little Pieces." I got stalled half way and went on to better books. I never doubted that Frey was being honest, though. I didn't like his writing style and the substance of the book kept grossing me out. He wrote too much, for my taste, about blood from bowels and chunks of stomach in his vomit. However, I've completed and enjoyed many a book with more disturbing content. I didn't think to question why I can read about Humbert Humbert making a young Lolita bloody and sore while still getting grossed out by a little fleshy puke from Frey.

I think, perhaps, that Frey's dishonesty, while not striking me as dishonest enough that I was moved to investigate it, actually killed the book for me. In retrospect, based on the half of the book I did read, he kind of was bragging about what a bad, bad, man he is, at just the times that an honest memoirist would have been revolted by their own story.

I'm fine with authors and creative types in all fields achieving some level of myth in my mind. The Hemingway I imagine is tougher than Hemingway could have been. The Salvador Dali in my mind is likely weirder, more mystic, than the man who turned his strange visions into a marketable living. My Gertrude Stein threw parties where the conversations, I'm sure, were far headier than what was actually discussed in Paris during the 1920s.

That's all fine. Give me heroes who make me question my assumptions about what's possible in real life. But, in that case, ask me questions and make me question. Don't sell me a a user's manual for life unless you honestly believe that it is one.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Free Speech, Paid Speech

As the Congressional corruption indictments slowly begin to mount and the Justice department probes continue, I'd like to take a moment to agitate on behalf of some meaningful campaign finance reform.

A lot of conservatives--as well as a lot Republicans who are anti-reform simply because they control every branch of the government and want to keep it that way--are hostile to current restrictions on campaign donations much less to any expansion of them. In a rare embrace of the First Amendment for such folks, they argue that private contributions, PAC contributions, corporate commercials etc. are free speech and as such must not be regulated by the federal government.

By and large, that argument is nonsense. Giving money to a candidate isn't the same as exercising one's own right to free speech. If you've got something to say, say it. If it's persuasive, people will listen. If it's so unpersuasive that you have to give money to a candidate to say it for you, then it's probably a bad idea. More to the point, it's not free speech. It's paid speech. There's no constitutional right to pay a Congressperson to say what you want said. And, as we all know, it's a short jump (if any at all) from paid speech to paid action--i.e., to a bribe.

But, you may be saying, surely it's people's right to give money to the candidate who says--and does--things that they support. If I want to send Dennis Kucinich $25 to tilt at windmills in 2008, who has the right to stop me?

Well, it's possible that by 2008 the Bush administration will have some sort of Alien and Sedition Act in place that gives the Marines the right to stop you from donating to Democrats. But, for now, you do have that right. I've exercised that kind of right in the past, and, so long as the system doesn't change, I'll do so again.

But I'm not sure that's all that good for America in the long run. I'm starting to think that I'd rather see all federal elections funded entirely and exclusively by the taxpayers as a group rather than as special interests.

Let's take the Presidential race as an example. People would be barred from officially campaigning until they declared their candidacy. Once they declared their candidacy, they would have (say) three months to prove that at least 2% of registered voters would seriously consider voting for them in a primary election. (During that time they could raise and spend money from voters or their parties.) If they could meet the 2% threshhold, the FEC would give them $10 million to spend in the lead-up to the primary. If they won the primary, they'd get $100 million dollars to spend on the general election. And they'd not only be entitled to it but limited to it--no outside sources allowed at all, not party, private, corporate, whatever.

To avoid financing totally hopeless candidates but to support all halfway legit third-party candidates, any candidate whose party could prove that more than 4% of registered voters would consider voting for a candidate from his or her party would be entitled to the $10m primary money. If a candidate's party couldn't do that before the election, but if the candidate could get himself or herself on the ballot in either 1/3 of the states (17) or in states whose total populations account for 1/3 of the country's population, then that candidate would also be entitled (and limited) to the $100m general election funds.

In Congressional elections, the polls would be for the districts or states in question. In terms of money, Senate candidates would get 1/15th the presidential amounts ($666,666 for primaries, %6.6m for general elections), and House andidates would get 1/3 what Senators get ($222,222 for primaries, $2.22m for general).

You might argue that this would be expensive. But it wouldn't. Not in the long term. Over the course of a decade, there would be 2,175 House races, 167 Senate races, and 2.5 Presidental races. So, let's assume eight candidates for each House and Senate primary and ten for each presidential primary. Let's also assume there would be three candidates for each office in every general election. Over ten years, these elections would cost taxpayers about $18.3 billion for the House, $4.23 billion for the Senate, and $1.0 billion for the Presidency, for a total of about $25.6 billion. That's $2.6 bn per year.

Now, $2.6 billion is a lot of money. But it's only about one-tenth of one percent of the approximately $2.4 TRILLION annual federal budget. If, every year, having BOTH less corruption in Congress AND less need for Congressmen to bribe their constituents with pork spending, we'd save way more than $2.6 billion per year. And, since decreased corruption tends to stimulate economic growth, we'd probably turn a profit on taxes (either as a nation or as individuals paying reduced taxes).

Some will argue that federally financed elections would stifle free speech by making it illegal for interested voters or interest groups to declare their support for a candidate by mounting independent campaigns for or against or to mount issue campaigns that influence particular races.

But they wouldn't. The right to proclaim one's support for a candidate or an issue is definitely a free speech right and absolutely should not be infringed. But the right to coordinate your support with a particular candidate's campaign is not such a right, and all such coordination should definitely be curtailed. If the SEC can monitor insider corporatae trading (and it does so pretty well despite being underfunded and hamstrung), then the FEC could monitor insider election dealing. Just as a healthy the stock market requires investor confidence that a cabal of insiders isn't gaming the system to benefit themselves, a healthy electoral system depends on voter confidence that groups and individuals aren't buying special access by running non-independent "independent" media campaigns.

Nothing's going to end corruption, but this might make it rarer.