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Adverse Effects

Andrew Cockburn’s analysis of the “election-industrial complex” [“Down the Tube,” Letter from Washington, April] argues, correctly, that the rise of super PACs has created a class of consultants paid handsomely to produce TV ads — often with no impact on election results. But we can’t lose sight of the many other ways in which big money influences candidates and corrupts our political system.

Most important, big money decides who runs for office: candidates can’t even leave the starting gate unless they appeal to major donors. A well-financed super PAC is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for political success. It’s true that money couldn’t buy Jeb Bush love (or votes). But you can see the difference big money makes in primary elections by comparing the campaigns of Ted Cruz, who was backed from the start by powerful super PACs, and John Kasich, who has far fewer billionaire backers.

As Cockburn demonstrates, fund-raising takes up an enormous amount of a candidate’s time even after he or she has assumed office, which means that elected representatives speak more with donors than with average voters.

It’s hard to deny that the political operatives producing these TV ads are winners under the super-PAC regime. And as long as big money can easily drown out the voices of voters, Americans and our democracy will continue to be the real losers.

Trevor Potter
President, Campaign Legal Center

I wish Cockburn had mentioned Willie Horton. Even if Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 presidential race for a host of other reasons, there can be no denying that the television ad about Horton’s crimes, committed while he was on furlough from a prison in Massachusetts, was a success for the Republicans and a disaster for the Democrats. The opposite is true of Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad of 1964, which juxtaposed a little girl holding a flower with an atomic explosion. Billionaire donors trying to buy elections may be wasting their money most of the time, but there is always a chance that they will happen on the rare killer ad. If I were running for president, I don’t think I would have the nerve to stay out of the television-ad game.

Joseph Charles Deahl
Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Just Say Yes

Dan Baum manages to make an extremely nuanced issue — drug policy — absurdly simplistic [“Legalize It All,” Report, April]. While it’s true that President Nixon and his advisers harbored racial hostility, there is no historical evidence that he initiated his war on drugs for this reason. In fact, many historians regard Nixon’s drug policies as relatively progressive. For example, he is singularly responsible for the political support behind methadone for heroin addicts.

Drugs are illegal because of the immense damage they inflict on society. Long before Nixon ramped up his rhetoric against drug-related crime, scientists, journalists, and liberal politicians had sounded the alarm about the death and destruction caused by drug addiction. As early as 1962, President Kennedy called for an “orderly, vigorous, and direct attack” on the problem, including “the elimination of illicit traffic in drugs.”

There is no question that the enforcement of antidrug laws has resulted in abuses. We can and should implement strategies such as drug courts to ensure that addiction is treated as a public-health issue. But we must also recognize that legalizing drugs will not purge our criminal-justice system of racial bias: racial disparities in arrests persist in states that have legalized marijuana. Our experience with legal drugs such as alcohol shows that the negative effects of their widespread use are felt disproportionately by the most marginalized among us. Big Marijuana is poised to become the next Big Tobacco, and the prospect of rising profits will encourage the industry to promote heavy use and addiction.

Baum implies that we have to choose either institutionalized racism or drug legalization. This false dichotomy ignores not only the consequences that heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana have on people’s lives but also the wide array of policy tools available to address these serious issues.

Kevin A. Sabet
President, Smart Approaches to Marijuana
New York City

Dan Baum responds:
Kevin Sabet contends that I offer a false choice between institutionalized racism and legalization. But the choice is between continuing to use the criminal-justice system to reduce drug abuse — which obviously hasn’t worked and has spawned a raft of social pathologies — and addressing drug abuse with the kind of intelligence and compassion we eventually came to deploy against H.I.V./AIDS. We went from hating and fearing the afflicted to caring for them, and being smart instead of punitive about prevention.

Sabet is right about Nixon and methadone, and I give ample credit to Nixon for that in my book Smoke and Mirrors. But Sabet is mistaken in his interpretation of what John Ehrlichman told me. His point wasn’t that Nixon was racist and that racism led him to launch his war on drugs but rather that black people were a political problem for him. Naked politics, not racism, was what Ehrlichman was talking about — even if the downstream results of the drug war have swept generations of young African Americans into prison.

I share Sabet’s concern about Big Marijuana taking over the regulatory process, and I raised that specter in the article. But I’m suggesting that after decades of doing more harm than good, we’re capable of doing more good than harm. Drug courts, which have been around for decades, fix nothing, because they keep the response to drug abuse within the criminal-justice system. Many countries and some U.S. states are now experimenting with alternatives to policing drug dependence; their efforts were the focus of my article. Sabet would be a valuable participant in the conversation if he could complement his considerable policy experience with an open mind.

Tortious Interference

I have no problem with Ralph Nader claiming to have improved the safety of American-made automobiles through tort law. He did. As a private practitioner of urology, however, I take issue with his detour into medical malpractice [“Suing for Justice,” Revision, April]. Nader argues that Gerry Spence’s public-relations campaign to prevent the introduction of a cap on certain damage awards in Wyoming was a selfless public service. It was not. It ran against the best interests of the people. I attended one of the town-hall meetings Nader describes, where Spence told the crowd that “between 1989 and 2002 only five jury verdicts had resulted in monetary damages” in malpractice cases and that there was “not a single million-dollar award during that period.” But Nader must know that most tort cases result in pretrial dismissals and settlements, which are also burdensome and expensive. Jury verdicts are a tiny fraction of the cost of a malpractice suit to the doctor and society. As soon as a suit is filed, it begins to take up the doctor’s time, and time is money. I’d estimate that the cost of medical care is doubled by Nader’s unwarranted application of tort law. Under the Affordable Care Act, private-sector insurance is unaffordable to many because of malpractice suits. We have a choice: we can provide better medical care, or we can put every lawyer, including Spence, in Gucci shoes. We do not have the money for both.

Anthony H. Horan, M.D.
Delano, Calif.

Micro Aggression

I was shocked by Thomas Frank’s scornful tone in “Nor a Lender Be” [Politics, April], in which he criticizes the efforts of our “leading ladies” to celebrate their own achievements and those of the Third World women they champion. It is necessary for Western women to push against the glass ceiling hovering over us in every domain of our lives — after all, who else will do it? — and it is just as necessary for us to strive to empower women around the globe. The ceiling exists for women everywhere, lower in some places than in others, and all women should be helping to lift it. Gentlemanly scorn is so unproductive!

Glee Hubbard
Port Ludlow, Wash.

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June 2016

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