It transpires, frighteningly enough, that not a lot of people in my age group quite get why Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert trolling the SEC was so funny. Non-estadounidenses are probably even more confused. The explanation is long and convoluted, but I promise to try to be amusing.

Part I: Shit You Need To Know First, or: Go pour yourself a drink, you'll need it.


The Securities & Exchange Commission is the federal agency responsible for overseeing the complicated world of high finance. (Don't actually read that Wiki article, your brain will try to dribble out your ears to escape the tedium.) They are kind of shit at their job. This is partly not their fault. They suffer from the inherent curse of law enforcement, which is that while you need to spend all of your time and energy frantically gluing each of a million different loopholes shut, there are a million felons out there all devoting their time and energy to hunting down the one you forgot. High-powered financiers, like hackers, anarchists and bored pet rodents, tend to take 'you can't do that' as a dare, and generally they don't get where they got by being stupid. (The financiers. The other three groups are sometimes slightly shorter on cunning and common sense, at least when they get going.) It is in many ways analogous to the war the DEA is losing against "research chemicals", i.e., custom-built recreational drugs. It's surprisingly difficult sometimes to pinpoint all of what you want to make illegal without accidentally catching things you need. You could knock out an awful lot of fun drugs by banning any psychoactive alkaloid with dependence or abuse potential, but you'd have a large violent mob outside your door the minute they all realized you just outlawed coffee.

On the other hand, it partly is their fault, because they have an inherent conflict of interest. The SEC is intended to ride herd on very rich -- and therefore important and influential -- people. In order to be any good at figuring out what greedy swine will try, you have to have spent quite some time working with them, which means you probably are, or at least were, among their ranks. Jurisdiction also complicates things; money respects no borders. While they aren't too bad at nailing blatant homegrown fraudsters like Bernie Madoff (eventually), they can take their sweet goddamn time bringing down horrifying multinational tangles like Enron. It takes even longer since all this shit is written in legalese so dense it's a wonder their file rooms don't have their own gravity well. The crossroads demons, at this point, are learning their craft from Wall Street.

The Federal Communications Commission governs broadcast media in the US. They have a lot of functions, from splitting the transmission bands into channels and allocating them, to setting restrictions on broadcast content, but the thing relevant to this is that they have instituted a rule stating that, during an election cycle, if any broadcaster offers airtime to any candidate, they must make the same offer to all candidates. It's to prevent a broadcaster from influencing election results by using their position as market leader to assail everyone with messages from one candidate and shutting out the others. There are exceptions -- if a fire breaks out at Jack Johnson's campaign HQ and the news spends three minutes covering it, they don't have to go hunt down John Jackson and let him stare at a camera for three minutes in compensation -- but generally, if they let one guy spam the masses, they have to let everyone else do it, too.

The FEC is the Federal Elections Commission. They do a lot of things, many of them rather poorly, but here the important bit is that they lost a Supreme Court case in 2008 against a non-profit group called Citizens United. In US law, corporations are considered equivalent to people. Sometimes. You can't convict a corporation in a criminal court, but a corporation can be named as either defendant or plaintiff in a civil case, as if they are a single human entity. The case filed by Citizens United was that if (1) corporations are legally the same as people, then (2) they are therefore covered by not just all legal restrictions, but also all rights and protections that US law accords to natural human beings, which (3) includes the Constitution and all its Amendments, so (4) the FEC making rules about how much money they could sling around the media buying ads and producing "documentaries" for or against political candidates infringed upon Citizens United's First Amendment rights to free speech.

The case was ruled in favor of Citizens United. You can take a minute to let that sink in. Mescaline may help.

[This has led to a few other things that make people want to throw the good crockery, like the recent Hobby Lobby case, in which the court held that a corporation-person can also have religious values and therefore religious freedoms, and Hobby Lobby wasn't required to cough up for health insurance that covered birth control for the slutty slutty slut employees who refused to follow their idea of good clean Christian living. Yes, I'm mad, I fucking live here and have to deal with the fallout when people mistake Alice's Adventure in Wonderland for one of Dodgson's actual logic textbooks.

...if you don't live here, I suppose that just gave you some insight into what The Colbert Report is satirizing. You're welcome?]

A PAC is a political action committee, which is a type of non-profit organization, usually incorporated, that has been formed to raise funds for activism in the sociopolitical sphere. It can champion any cause. There are restrictions on who can donate to regular PACs, depending on what kind it is and what they're lobbying for, but until recently, none of them could take donations from corporations directly. After the Citizens United case, and another one called SpeechNOW.org v FEC in 2010, a new category of PAC was established, called an "independent-expenditure committee" in legalese, and a SuperPAC by everyone who isn't required to draft briefs. Essentially, it was held that as long as a SuperPAC was not run by a candidate directly and did not give money directly to their campaign, it was considered "independent" of the campaign proper, and holding it to the FEC requirement to disclose the identity of everyone who poured money into it was a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech -- which, if you will recall from a few mind-numbing paragraphs ago, the Supreme Court had already decided included corporations. They can decide to run as many ELECT JOHN JACKSON! ads as they want, and since they are not part of the campaign, the network is not required to offer equivalent ad time to anyone else.

Come back when your protective hallucinogens have worn off and I'll explain what Stewart and Colbert were doing, and why it's fucking hilarious.

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