Sunday, March 12, 2006

Is money in politics always bad?

Today I'm going to go out on a pretty unconventional limb that may invite quite a bit of scorn - and, to top it off, the topic really has nothing to do specifically with Houston or urban policy. Clay Robison's op-ed today on money in politics got me thinking: is money in politics always bad? The assumed answer seems to be "absolutely." First, an excerpt with my comments:

Pro-voucher jillionaire's just part of bigger problem

...

Leininger paid for more than 90 percent of the challengers' campaigns, making the winners -— in the minds of most reasonable people -— bought and paid for. (but this is public information, and the voters still chose these candidates, presumably because he reflects their views)

Vouchers may have some merit, although I believe the public schools should be more adequately funded first. But whatever the pros and cons of the issue, nobody elected Leininger to single-handly muscle his opinion into public policy. (yes, it's called free speech, and fortunately we didn't make getting elected a requirement to exercise it)

Without some campaign finance limits, any legislator can fall victim to similar spending by Leininger or any other single-issue zealot next time around. (so only the 'multi-issue indifferent' should be allowed to support candidates?)

If a sense of political self-preservation does produce a push for campaign reform during the 2007 legislative session, lobby groups, the longtime players who are being outgunned in the new, sky's-the-limit election marketplace, would be wise to join the effort.

But money yells so loudly, its influence will be difficult to temper.

So here's my logic questioning this assumption of "money in politics = bad". There are basically two ways of making money: a person can earn it by providing a valuable service to society, or a business can make it by converting inputs of lower total value to society (i.e. costs) into outputs of higher total value to society (i.e. sales/revenues), with the value-add equal to profits (revenues - costs). Either way, something of value was created for society, and society (i.e. customers or employers) gave them some money in exchange, in essence saying "Thanks for the valuable service/product! Here are some 'tokens of gratitude' (i.e. money) you can exchange for something you want in the future." So, generally speaking, people with lots of money (i.e. tokens of gratitude) are those that have provided a lot of value to society (I know this is not always the case, but it generally holds - and, of course, money is not the only measure of somebody's value-add to society (Mother Teresa and Einstein come to mind), but it is one measure among many, and probably the easiest to quantify).

In essence, they have stored up a lot of favors society owes back to them when they're ready to turn those tokens in. In most cases, they spend it on homes, cars, material goods, vacations, or college educations for their kids. But what if they have strongly held beliefs about the right direction for society? Or even, maybe a little more selfishly, they want to push government in a direction that helps their personal interests. Why can't they turn in society's tokens of gratitude for the value they've provided in exchange for strongly communicating their beliefs or interests, whether directly (i.e. free speech) or indirectly by supporting a spokesman (i.e. a political candidate)? I'm not advocating bribes, but as long as campaign donations are public information, why shouldn't they be able to exchange society's markers for a louder voice?

Now, going out on even thinner ice, it might be argued that this will actually lead to better government in a democracy. One of the classic arguments against democracy when it was being birthed in the 18th and 19th centuries was that it gives equal weight to the most ignorant and poorly-thought-out opinions and to the most intelligent and well-thought-out ones. How many times have you heard people say, when their candidate wins, "the people have spoken," but when their candidate loses, "the ignorant masses washed out the intelligent minority"? Letting money into the process lets people who have added the most value to society get an "extra loud voice" in the raucous debate that is democracy. Is that a totally bad thing? Might it not counter-balance some of the more negative tendencies of "ignorant majorities" in democracies? (with the assumption that ignorance makes it hard to add a lot of value to society (vs. education and intelligence), so therefore they are less likely to have money to influence politics).

Some people may think this is a "the right with money vs. the left without money" argument, but I think the left was pretty happy to have billionaire George Soros' 527 money in the 2004 presidential election: somebody who added a lot of value to society wanted to exchange that value for a louder voice. Is that unreasonable?

I know this is pretty radical thinking, and my logic may be flawed, so I'd be very curious to hear thoughtful counter-arguments in the comments (or, if you agree, that might be nice to hear too).

17 Comments:

At 11:28 PM, March 12, 2006, Anonymous ringzero said...

I'm not sure I understand what you're advocating. What we have currently is big money buys politicians. The results are what you see. Some people would say things are working fine, others would disgree. But if what you're suggesting is goverment run by big money, no changes are necessary.

 
At 7:21 AM, March 13, 2006, Blogger Owen said...

ringzero,

Come now... Tory's position is far more nuanced than that. Moreover, the idea that politicians are being "bought" reeks a bit too much of the old mafia days where crime bosses "owned" Senators. At best, money today buys increased access and influence, but strictly speaking, it doesn't "buy" politicians.

I'd also argue that money in politics gets less than people think. With so many diverse interests throwing money around, often all it insures is access, and the influence part -- molding legislation -- is often rather minimal unless there is a popular movement behind it. Politicians still respond to their constituents' concerns first; those are their lifeblood.

 
At 7:49 AM, March 13, 2006, Blogger John Whiteside said...

The assumption underlying what you're saying is that political clout is just another good for one to buy, or not buy, in the economy.

If you buy that, it means that those with more money will always be able to buy more of anything. It's hard to see how it leads to good government when, for example, well to do people can "buy" a voucher program through campaign contributions (in other words, they can buy themselves a tax break on the private school tuition they're already paying), or when a group of companies can "buy" the right to poison their workers through lax regulations (see recent news stories about chromium exposure regulation).

This is, to some degree, what we have today; I think if you look at the results, it's hard to argue that it's good government.

As for whether you can buy politicans... well, maybe I'm a cynic, but I need only watch John McCain dancing for his telecom and airline contributors to maintain that cynicism.

 
At 8:32 AM, March 13, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Money certainly has access and influence in politics, but I think the first principle of the (cynical) politician is "will my opponent use this action I'm about to take or vote I'm about to cast against me in the next election?" There's only so far that money can go before the voters push back. The Dubai ports deal is a perfect example: near infinite money defeated by pandering to voters' fears.

On the voucher program, I would argue this guy is only a small counter-weight to the teachers' unions, which bring big money AND lots of voters. They certainly could have thrown plenty of support behind the moderate Republicans, but chose not to for some reason.

And please don't interpret what I'm saying as "our current politics work great." That is definitely not the case - I'm just saying removing money has the potential to make things worse instead of better.

 
At 9:22 AM, March 13, 2006, Blogger David said...

Tory said "There are basically two ways of making money..." Of course, there are at least three, the third obvious one being to inherit it and then to make more money by investing it. Generally, we are moving to a system in which only work is taxed and wealth is not, if I understand the system. I personally know quite a few people who were what they call "trust fund kids" who have never worked a day in their lives and have more and more money all the time, and whose taxes have been going down over time. Most of them are very much involved in politics. This may be unrelated to the topic here, but Tory's statement seems a little optimistic.

 
At 9:32 AM, March 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll have to think about your main point some more, but I want to address this:

On the voucher program, I would argue this guy is only a small counter-weight to the teachers' unions, which bring big money AND lots of voters. They certainly could have thrown plenty of support behind the moderate Republicans, but chose not to for some reason.

James Leininger is a very big counterweight, in part because he dumped an unprecedentedtly large amount of money into State Rep races, and in part because he's tight with players like Governor Perry and Speaker Craddick (again because of $$$ he's given them).

The teacher unions have a certain amount of influence statewide, but I'd argue that their actual influences varies from place to place througout the state. I'd venture to say that in HD73 for example, where the Leininger-backed Nathan Macias ousted Rep. Carter Casteel, the union presence isn't very strong. The $600K that Leininger dropped on Macias probably went a very long way in Comal and Gillespie Counties.

This comes back to what John said. Macias got something like 90% of his financial support from one person, and that person doesn't live in his district. It's quite reasonable to ask whose interests he's going to represent in Austin.

Finally, there was a fairly effective counterweight to Leininger in this election, a group called the Texas Parent PAC, which backed the incumbents that Leininger targeted as well as a few challengers of their own. They scored one high profile victory in Tarrant County, where their candidate, educator Diane Patrick, defeated top Craddick lieutanant and HB2 author Kent Gruesendorf. Leininger supported Gruesendorf as well, but in four figures, not six. The financial playing field there was a lot more even, and in that case the little guys won.

-- Charles Kuffner

 
At 9:51 AM, March 13, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

On inheritance: My tendency is to agree, although a strong counter-argument I've heard is that the person simply passed on "society's markers" for the value they added to their children, essentially as a gift (albeit with substantial inheritance taxes in many cases). They just transferred tokens from one generation to the next. In some cases (and more and more frequently), they leave it to charity - which is about as unselfish as you can get: I add value to society all my life, and then turn over my tokens to a charity to add even more value to society.

Thanks for the details, Charles. I'm actually surprised Leninger's opponents didn't do better by campaigning that "their opponent is 90% bought and paid for by some rich guy in San Antonio." The local media usually eats that kind of story up too. That can be surprisingly effective negative campaigning, and just another limit on the value of money in elections.

 
At 10:18 AM, March 13, 2006, Anonymous ringzero said...

Come now... Tory's position is far more nuanced than that

I don't doubt that, but I'm still not sure what his proposal is exactly. Would we do away with voting by the populace and simply sell lawmaking to the highest bidder?

I'm game for trying such a thing. Hopefully the unwashed masses would still have some say by pooling their money. If things didn't work out, we could just stage another revolution, which is probably overdue anyhow.

 
At 10:20 AM, March 13, 2006, Blogger Kevin said...

Today I'm going to go out on a pretty unconventional limb that may invite quite a bit of scorn - and, to top it off, the topic really has nothing to do specifically with Houston or urban policy. Clay Robison's op-ed today on money in politics got me thinking: is money in politics always bad?

Why is this unconventional? It's something political scientists and serious observers of politics think about quite a bit.

I would submit to you that the question is bad. Money in politics just IS. Even if we had exclusively, mandatory public financing of campaigns (which is a horrible idea in my view, and quite likely unconstitutional), people and groups are going to use money to influence politics. Period. And efforts to constrain that political reality (McCain-Feingold, anyone?) are likely to have unintended consequences (527 groups, anyone?).

As noted, a Charles Kuffner not to mention numerous newspapers can point out that one guy is trying to "buy" an election. If the voters decide that's okay, then that's on them -- even though it may frustrate Kuffner, Robison, and others.

One reform that I can certainly support is making the process as transparent as possible, though. We should know who's donating to groups and what they're spending, and we should know it in a timely manner. There's plenty of common ground there.

 
At 12:16 PM, March 13, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> Would we do away with voting by the populace and simply sell lawmaking to the highest bidder?

Note that I said money *may* help democracy work better, not that it should replace democracy.

> One reform that I can certainly support is making the process as transparent as possible, though. We should know who's donating to groups and what they're spending, and we should know it in a timely manner. There's plenty of common ground there.

Absolutely.

 
At 4:28 PM, March 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As noted, a Charles Kuffner not to mention numerous newspapers can point out that one guy is trying to "buy" an election. If the voters decide that's okay, then that's on them -- even though it may frustrate Kuffner, Robison, and others.

You're assuming that the newspapers will point it out, something which is far from universal - I'd go so far as to argue that the attention Leininger got this year was extraordinary, expecially when compared to (say) the TRMPAC/TAB expenditures of 2002. Most voters don't know and have no way of knowing when this happens.

Now, if you could guarantee that every time James Leininger dropped a half-million dollars or more on a State Rep race that his target had access to an equivalent amount of money to make the "he's trying to buy an election!" argument to the voters, then I wouldn't get too worked up about this. But you can't, and that's the problem. Leininger gets a disproportionate amount of influence in the Legislature because of his bank balance. I don't know about you, but that is not my idea of how it's supposed to work.

That doesn't mean that public financing of campaigns is the answer. All I want is some reasonable limits on how much a single entity can give to a campaign. The fact that Leininger's batting average this time around wasn't as good as it could have been doesn't change my mind on that point.

I'm actually surprised Leninger's opponents didn't do better by campaigning that "their opponent is 90% bought and paid for by some rich guy in San Antonio." The local media usually eats that kind of story up too. That can be surprisingly effective negative campaigning, and just another limit on the value of money in elections.

Two of them did run such ads - Roy Blake and Tommy Merritt. Blake still lost, but Merritt won. Of course, the key thing here is that they had the resources to respond. That didn't have to be the case, and again, that's my problem with the whole thing.

-- Charles Kuffner

 
At 4:33 PM, March 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and I definitely agree with Kevin about making the process more transparent. If we could ever have that debate in a serious manner, I'd be a lot happier.

-- Charles Kuffner

 
At 5:09 PM, March 13, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> Most voters don't know and have no way of knowing when this happens.

Aren't campaign contributions a matter of public record, available on a web site somewhere? I'm not saying many voters bother, but I thought it is available for opponents to find and tout if they like.

There really is no way to limit funding without compromising free speech. You might cap how much one entity can give to a specific candidate, but you can't stop them from setting up their own 527 or whatever and saying whatever they want, with as many ad-buys as they want.

 
At 6:46 PM, March 13, 2006, Blogger John Whiteside said...

I should add that the money problem is on both sides of the aisle.

As for voter pushback - yes, but up to a point. The sad truth is that most voters in the US are incredibly checked out from what's happening around them; people don't pay much attention to the news; television news, the most popular source, is astonishingly shallow and fact-free; a lot of opinions get formed by issue advertising (that is, big money getting spent).

Add to that our low voter participation, and you have a situation where voter pushback doesn't happen except in fairly extreme circumstances.

I'm not sure that any democracy has gotten this right, but I did note during my recent France trip that the news there was surprisingly, well, news-oriented; even on television you saw a lot more coverage of European politics and actual newsworthy events as opposed to our focus on who bled a lot or whose house burned down. I don't know if anyone has ever tried to study the "informed-ness" of a the populations of western democracies, but I have a hunch the US wouldn't fare well in such a study. (I don't know if what I was seeing on French television was typical of what people actually get for news there; I just noticed that the difference was quite obvious.)

And that's a situation where very little stands in the way of big spenders.

 
At 7:48 PM, March 13, 2006, Anonymous RedScare said...

In addition to David's 3rd way to make money by inheriting it, there is the 4th way, which is to steal it, or to otherwise come into possession of it by fraud. The assumption here is that all money is earned righteously, and all wealthy people have, by the fact that they are wealthy, done right by society. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A CEO who has been given more salary than he is worth by friends on the board, has not really contributed much to his shareholders, much less society. Further, a CEO who profits handsomely by his golden parachute after being forced out for incompetence, can hardly be said to have done much for society. Andy Fastow is accused of selling his own wife down the river to protect his ill-gotten wealth. Does society "owe" him?

Now, as to what these people are using their money for. If they were contributing for better government, you might have an argument. But, the donor's idea of better government invariably benefits the donor, usually at the expense of the disenfranchised.

The US form of government was based on the concept of "one man, one vote". It should not be surprising that those with money get more of a vote than those without. Money will always be in politics, and free speech rights may trump limits on contributions, but to suggest that the influence that money buys is somehow good for the process is ludicrous. It only perverts it.

 
At 10:49 PM, March 13, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I have plenty of problems with corporate governance in America, but I still think stealing/fraud is the rare case, not the rule.

We are still very definitely "one man, one vote", but money can buy a bigger voice. You can spend all you like, but at the end of the day, the voters make the call, as George Soros learned the hard way.

I too wonder about average voter "informedness", but I'll be honest, I don't worry too much about voter apathy. I actually think it might be a kind of good indicator. The fact is, American government doesn't intrude directly too much in the lives of the average American, so our attention is focused on what directly impacts the quality of our lives: career, family, community, etc. Since it doesn't really seem to impact our daily lives all that much who gets elected from which party, we don't give it a lot of attention. If voters are extremely interested, then you probably have a situation where the government controls and/or influences a large portion of their lives, and that's not necessarily a good thing.

 
At 8:08 PM, March 14, 2006, Anonymous ringzero said...

The fact is, American government doesn't intrude directly too much in the lives of the average American, so our attention is focused on what directly impacts the quality of our lives: career, family, community, etc. Since it doesn't really seem to impact our daily lives all that much who gets elected from which party, we don't give it a lot of attention.

I think this is true for the most part. It's too bad the people America stomps on in the world don't get a vote here.

In any case I think Tory's idea is an interesting one. Put political influence on an open, free market and see what happens. I still don't think there's all that much difference between that system and the one we're currently running, however.

 

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