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When Money Talks, Democracy Walks
Janet Alfieri

Does money talk? According to U. S. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) it does. He is petitioning the Supreme Court to declare portions of the Campaign Finance Reform Law unconstitutional on the grounds that money spent on the so-called issue ads is merely a form of free speech and, therefore, protected by the First Amendment. Should the majority of the Justices agree with him (and if the 1976, Buckley v. Valeo decision is any indication, they may well do so), all existing pretense that Americans have an equal right to be heard will be exposed as false.

McConnell's position, equating money with speech, is fundamentally anti-democratic. Simply put, it would result in those with more access to money having greater access to "free" speech. In his scenario, the only way all Americans would have an equal voice is if we were all equally endowed with wealth. This is not the case.

Just how much this is not the case is starkly illustrated by the "L-Curve," a graphic designed by California high school physics and math teacher David Chandler. "I first constructed the L-Curve spontaneously in a class discussion during the Rodney King rioting in L.A.," said Chandler. "We were talking about wealth and poverty and I wondered out loud just how skewed the income distribution really was." The picture that resulted demonstrates, better than a billion words, why equating money with speech constitutes a gross injustice.

Using data garnered from the 2000 Census and IRS, Chandler visualized the yearly income of each American as a stack of one hundred dollar bills (10 cm. = $100,000) and then arranged the stacks, slimmest to fattest, in a line that spanned the length of a football field. On his imaginary field, the stack of bills at the 50-yard line is 1.6 inches high ($39,000). At the 95-yard line, the pile reaches 4 inches ($132,000). It is not until the 99th yard line that the first millionaire appears (40 inches high). Then, just before the goal line, a line spikes up vertically to a height of thirty miles – over 4 times the elevation of Mt. Everest. This line represents the top 0.3% of Americans with incomes up to $50 billion dollars.

According to Chandler, an amateur astromomer who specializes in making incomprehensibly high numbers understandable through illustration, the inequity of income distribution that his football field graphic demonstrated shocked even him. Yet, it gets worse. He contends on his web site (www.davidchandler.com/lcurve/index.htm) that if wealth rather than income were used as the basis for his analysis, the L-Curve would be even steeper. He quotes the research of David Schweickart, an economist from Loyola University, who estimates that the top one percent of Americans now own between forty and fifty percent of all the nation's wealth.

It doesn't take an economist to figure out where most of us are standing on Chandler's football field. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if campaign contributions and expenditures are determined to be constitutionally protected speech, most of us would be relegated to shouting from the sidelines, while the wealthiest contributors would be able to make their announcements over the public address system . . . or emblazoned on the Goodyear blimp.

The limits placed on televised issue ads in the Campaign Finance Reform Law are just a modest attempt to level the playing field.