For five decades, I've looked for undervalued stocks. But if I'd been interested in the biggest bargain around, which I wasn't, I would have bought political influence. For many a year, it was far cheaper than anything to be found in the stock market. A relatively modest contribution -- say, $25,000 -- was enough to make the donor a V.I.P. in the political world. And really big amounts? As a fund-raising senator once jokingly said to me, ''Warren, contribute $10 million and you can get the colors of the American flag changed.''
Markets correct, though. Politicians began exploiting the soft money loophole, and pricing became more efficient. Soft money contributions jumped from $86 million in the 1992 election cycle to an expected $360 million in the current one. That's a growth rate worthy of Silicon Valley: 20 percent annually.
And the game has barely started. For most supplicants, cost still lags ridiculously far behind value. American business spends $200 billion a year on advertising to influence consumers. In many industries -- communications, tobacco, banking, pharmaceuticals and insurance among them -- political influence can sometimes be of similar commercial importance. It also matters critically to such professionals as lawyers, doctors, and teachers. Absent reform, these interest groups will continue to ante up for political influence, accepting the soaring prices that the vendors demand.
These vendors, however, maintain that it's all O.K. They argue that a contribution may buy access and empathy but are shocked -- shocked! -- at the thought that it could influence their vote.
Perhaps. But let me suggest a fanciful thought experiment to test their position. Suppose that a reform bill is introduced, raising the limit on individual contributions to federal candidates from $1,000 to, say, $5,000 but prohibiting contributions from all other sources, among them corporations and unions. These entities could still encourage their employees, stockholders, or members to contribute personally, but could do no more -- a ban, incidentally, that applied to them until the ''soft money'' dodge was introduced in 1978. Such a bill would be far from a panacea for all campaign finance ills, of course, but it would at least be a start.
Why should this bill stand a chance in a Congress enraptured with the status quo? Well, just suppose some eccentric billionaire (not me, not me!) made the following offer: If the bill was defeated, this person -- the E.B. -- would donate $1 billion in an allowable manner (soft money makes all possible) to the political party that had delivered the most votes to getting it passed. Given this diabolical application of game theory, the bill would sail through Congress and thus cost our E.B. nothing (establishing him as not so eccentric after all).
The beauty of this plan is that it would highlight the absurdity of claims that money doesn't influence Congressional votes. What a $1 billion promise would buy here is a ''counter-revelation'' among legislators, who'd be induced by the offer to shift their position on campaign finance by 180 degrees so as to prevent the money from being delivered to the opposition party. When the roll call began, Republicans and Democrats alike would, in this scenario, suddenly find merit in a reform that they had previously classified as somewhere between repulsive and un-American.
This hypothetical exercise, it should be noted, does not expose the legislators who now oppose reform as evil or corrupt -- but only as human. How many of us push for laws that are clearly injurious to our self-interest? I can assure you that I've never looked for ways to make retention of my job less secure. Why should legislators?
Would a system that allows an E.B. to influence legislation by a $1 billion promise make sense? Of course not. And neither does a system that allows an anything-but-eccentric individual, corporation or union to achieve similar influence by a large check. Only individuals vote -- and then just once per election. Let only individuals contribute -- with sensible limits per election. Otherwise, we are well on our way to ensuring that a government of the moneyed, by the moneyed, and for the moneyed shall not perish from the earth.