Monday, March 17, 2014

Money And Politics

(yeah, I know.  I don't do enough controversial topics around here)

A friend I used to work with sent me a link to this TED Talk on NPR: Has Money Taken Over American Politics?  Like many of you, and some of the commenters, I thought "when has money not been in control?"  I can rattle off quotes all day, and I bet you know them, too.  Everyone knows it's a problem.  But if I had a problem to go after this wouldn't be number one.  Maybe not even number two. 

The guy who gives the talk has a program he's trying to get people to join in on.  It's not a bad talk, in typical TED style, but I think he's focusing in the wrong direction.  Contributors pay big bucks to buy government offices for a simple reason: it's an easy way to make money.  The day that buying an official to pass laws or make rules that hurt your competitor became a more cost effective than improving your company was the day we started sliding down the slippery slope to where we are. 

I've said before that I don't think money is as important as the general wisdom says.  I think the reasons everyone tries to raise bundles of many are mostly self-deception.  First off, it's easy to quantify.  The campaign manager can say, "look at how much I collected for you!".  Second, if the campaign loses, it's easier for a campaign manager to say "they spent more than we did" than to say "our advisers sucked", and way easier than saying "my campaign work sucked", or "face it - you suck".  Last week, a nobody with no experience in elected office beat Alex Sink in a House race over in Tampa area.  Sink was the evil party's candidate for governor last time - she just barely lost.  Sink and the various Democratic groups outspent the stupid party candidate by 3:1 and still lost.    In Texas, the same basic story was Ted Cruz in 2012 - Cruz was outspent 3:1 in his primary campaign.  Money is not everything.   

The number one problem on my list is that our system has devolved into a ruling class vs. the general population, and that's largely because the government is too big.  It's a permanent ruling class because once someone is elected, they stand a better than 80% chance of never being voted out.  They don't have to answer to voters or constituents, so they treat us like crap.  The only thing they're afraid of is having the big money run someone else against them in the primaries.  Obviously lobbyist money affects that, but it's crony politics all the way down.  While I like the idea of term limits, they're not without drawbacks.  Once a politico is in their last term they don't even have a reason to pretend they're not in it only for themselves.

When I think about it, it seems people have been talking about campaign finance reform for as as far back as I can recall and a law was passed in the 1970s, as well as more recently.  Really worked well, hasn't it?  We already have restrictions on spending, and they get around that with all these non-candidate groups.  "This message was paid for by Americans Loving Fuzzy Kittens".  Besides, why isn't telling someone they can't spend money to put a message on air a violation of their 1st Amendment free speech protections?  Yeah, I know.  Because the Supremes said so.  
(Eric Allie on Townhall.  Reference.)


  1. our system has devolved into a ruling class vs. the general population

    Was it not a ruling class vs. the general population when someone asked Benjamin Franklin outside the constitutional convention 'have you given us a president or a king?'

    All politics is a ruling class vs. the general population. That's the point of it.

  2. Looking at it the other way: politics has taken over American money, as noted in your second paragraph.

  3. The problem with the campaign finance reform is it makes a web of laws that are almost impossible to avoid getting stuck in and then a candidate without the backing of either the Dems or Repubs cannot afford a lawyer to keep them out of trouble and the big guys pull a gotcha knocking them out of the race. In my opinion the law should be super simple and constitutional. The donor can give as much or as little after tax money as they want but must declare it immediately. No bundling, that is you can give but no one can collect donations and give them to a politician. It all has to be individuals (yes a corporation or other group could still give but it has to be after tax money of some human and has to be given personally). For the politician they can accept money from any donor but not an organization and they too must report it immediately.

  4. Anon 2038, I generally don't trust campaign finance laws for the reasons you say. Get 435 lawyers in a room and let them write a thousand pages of loopholes and exemptions that they'll know about and newcomers won't? What could possibly go wrong?

    I think getting donors to self-identify cuts donations. Why put yourself on a list? Look what it's done for the TEA party or 9/12 groups.

    I also take a pretty dim view of laws being able to prevent crime.

  5. Eric - I think that's a very concise, pithy way to say it. It's like when the politicians went after Microsoft to extort money out of them. Politics takes over money.

    Still the result of too much power concentrated in one dinky town.

  6. Best comment I've heard anywhere in a long time:

    "All politics is a ruling class vs. the general population. That's the point of it."

  7. My approach to campaign finance is kind of at right angles to Anon@2038: allow anyone or anything, possibly even including foreign powers, to contribute any amount... but run all campaign contributions through a strong anonymization process (which must include a time-filtering component, to obfuscate amounts), so that no one knows who contributed what. In particular, if no donor can prove that he contributed to a campaign, it makes influence-buying much harder.
    This of course would rule out things like fundraising dinners, which are inherently non-anonymous. And, yes, it's probably a totally impractical idea.
    Alas, the current trend in voting runs the opposite way, toward mail-in ballots which can be shown to family members, bosses, shop stewards, candidates, etc., before being mailed in.