It's an Olympics year again. I personally couldn't care less, but I know they're coming anyway. Every other product I consume seems to be an official sponsor of the games, their packaging stamped with "Beijing 2008" and those familiar five interlocking rings, each a different color to represent the five different colors of Beijing smog, depending on the weather.
No matter how irrelevant to the field of athletics, virtually every conceivable consumer product has one brand that's the "official" one of the Olympics -- an official hair gel, an official cheese puff, an official tweezer. I sit here at my keyboard looking at my just-finished "Olympic Games Collector Series" can of Coca-Cola, stamped with some strange-looking squiggles it says are the logo for Coca-Cola in Thailand -- which is strange because I thought the logo for Coca-Cola in every country was "Coca-Cola," but I digress. The important thing is Coke is a "Worldwide Partner" of the Beijing games.
This is important to Coke because it's a "Proud Sponsor of Active Living" (and you thought it was just a case of diabetes -- ha), and it's important to the Olympics because it's part of how they raise the massive amounts of money necessary to put on the games. Corporations pay big bucks for the right to put the Olympic logo on their products, even if none of the athletes would touch them with a 20-foot pole vault.
I bring this up because of a recent report from the Campaign Finance Institute on the millions of dollars corporations are contributing to the two major political parties to help them put on their national conventions. It's difficult to tell exactly who is contributing exactly how much, because these are "soft money" contributions -- they don't have to be reported. But to keep them entirely secret would be to miss part of the point of contributing for many of these corporations. Because in addition to -- gasp -- "access" to lawmakers at private parties and the like, part of what they're buying is the right to display their corporate logos in camera-friendly locations for the benefit of the millions of people who will watch these extravagantly-produced party infomercials next month.
Tune in to the Democratic convention in Denver, for instance, and at some point you will no doubt see a delegate carrying around his or her essential convention paraphernalia in a tote bag emblazoned "Denver 2008", and then the logo for telecom giant AT&T. AT&T is the "official wireless provider" of the convention. (Fittingly, the Coca-Cola logo is on the other side of the bag. You'd think it was the Olympics or something.)
There's no word yet on whose logo will go on the Larry Craig stall in the Minneapolis airport restroom at the subsequent Republican convention, but still, it's a rather seedy spectacle, and it prompted commentator Glenn Greenwald to suggest the parties just sell naming rights to the conventions, like a football stadium. I got a chuckle out of that, until I thought about it a bit. Indeed, why not? But I don't think his proposal goes far enough. I think we should sell naming rights to the government itself.
The Exxon-Mobil Occupation of Iraq, anyone?
One thing that has always bothered me about our elected officials is not that they're for sale -- this is America, after all -- but that they're for sale so cheap. For instance, the CFI report tells me that among drugmakers, Eli Lilly has devoted about $12 million to campaign contributions and lobbying activities since 2005; Merck, almost $15 million; Pfizer, a whopping $40 million. Sounds like a lot, until you consider that the total windfall for big pharma from a single government program -- the Medicare prescription drug benefit -- has been $3.7 billion for just the first two years. Then you see these guys are really just ponying up chump change, and laughing all the way to the bank.
Selling off our democracy for naming rights would simultaneously address two nagging problems -- transparency in government and the budget deficit. We already have the "Enron loophole," slipped into a Senate bill in the dead of night some years ago and a big part of the way the company's top executives ripped off their employees, their shareholders, and every electricity user in the state of California. But that was a name applied retroactively, and ironically, and all they had to do was give a cushy seat on the corporate board to then-Texas Senator Phil Gramm's wife. As bribery goes, that's nothing. Imagine what they would have been willing to pay had they had to buy that favor on the open market.
Like free agency for baseball players, the winner-take-all nature of naming rights would not only be more in keeping with the American spirit, but we'd finally get something close to what these government resources are worth, instead of the wink-and-a-nod, pennies-on-the-dollar type of bribery we settle for now. Think of JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs bidding for the naming rights to the Treasury Department; Boeing vs. Lockheed-Martin for the right to brand the Air Force; Weyerhauser and International Paper vying for our national forests.
We could even sell off pieces of the Constitution itself. How could Beretta and Smith & Wesson resist the opportunity to affix their name to the Second Amendment? Media companies would do the same for the First. Who cares if they wouldn't actually use it to give voice to a diverse range of opinions? This isn't about democracy, it's about branding and image. And all those other criminal-coddling amendments no one would want their company associated with? The ACLU could pick them up for a song. There's something for everyone here.
No, no matter how crass it may seem, I think we owe it to the overburdened taxpayers to bring our government into the 21st Century and sell naming rights. Bring on the ConocoPhillips Department of Energy; the Charles Schwab Securities and Exchange Commission; the Alpo Social Security Trust Fund. Overseeing the whole thing, of course, would be the eBay Congress of the United States.
It would sure beat the system we got now. Because I have a feeling a lot of those Democratic Convention delegates are going to come home from Denver with the feeling, "My party sold its soul, and all I got was this lousy tote bag."