Solving the problem of money and politics

A recent Surpreme court case which struck down limits on the total amount donors could provide to a large group of candidates has fired up the debate on what to do about the grand problem, particularly in the USA, of the corrupting influence of money on politics. I have written about this before in my New Democracy Topic, including proposals for anonymous donations, official political spam and many others.

As I strongly believe that it is very difficult to draft campaign finance rules that don’t violate the 1st amendment (the Supreme court agrees) and also that it would be a horrible, horrible decision to weaken the 1st amendment to solve this problem, nasty as the problem is, I have been working on alternate solutions. (I also don’t believe any of the proposed weakenings of the 1st amendment would actually work and not backfire.)

I am going to do a series here on those solutions over time, but first I want to lay out my perceptions of the various elements of the problem, for it is necessary to understand them to fix them. While political corruption is rife anywhere, the influence of big money seems most widespread in the USA.

Problem 1: Politicians feel they can’t get elected without spending a lot of money

Ask any member of congress what they did on their first day in office. The answer will be “made calls to donors.” They are always fundraising, because they don’t think they can get elected without it. They generally resent this, which is a ray of hope. If they thought they had a choice, that they could get elected without fundraising, they would reduce it a lot.

One thing that’s not easy to fix is the fact that if you fundraise, those who give you money will expect something for it, which is the thing we’re trying to eliminate. Even if the donors don’t ever explicitly state that expectation, it is always there, because every candidate will ask if what they are doing will piss off the donors, even more than they will ask what will piss off the voters. If you depend on the donations, you will do what it takes to keep them coming. Donations get a donor’s phone calls and letters answered, as well as requests for meetings.

I say that politicians feel they need money, and in fact they are often right about this. Money does produce votes. But neither are they totally right, as there are alternatives.

As noted in the comments, the length of campaigns plays a role in how much money people need to raise. Due to fixed election dates, US election campaigns are extremely long compared to other countries. (In Canada, an election might be called at any time, and takes place in as little as 36 days. Fundraising is often done in advance, of course, but there is only a little time in which to spend the money.)

The most common proposed solution here is public campaign finance, but I am developing alternatives to that or systems which could work in combination with that.

Problem 2: The main reason they need money is to buy TV ads

About 60% of the budget of a big campaign is spent on ads, most of them on TV. Today online advertising is just 10% of TV.

There is a reason they love TV. It gets to most demographics, and your message can be very dramatic and convincing. Most of all, you reach people who were not looking for your message. Everybody has a web site, but the web site only is seen by people who actively sought it out. TV gets into the homes of an ordinary voter and gives you a shot at influencing them. Other forms of advertising do that too, but few do it as well as TV.

This aspect of the problem is important because we’re in the middle of a big shift in the nature of advertising. The new advertising giant, Google, is a relatively new company with entirely different methods. We’re also in the middle of a big shift in media. Broadcast media, I feel, are on the decline, and new media forms, mostly online forms, are likely to take the lead. When this happens — and I say when, not if — it means that most of the donated political money will flow to the new media. This gives the new media a chance to either be the destination for all corruption money or to change the rules of the game, if they have the courage to do so.

In many cases, the world of advertising hasn’t simply moved form one company to a competitor. In the case of newspaper classified advertising, that industry was just supplanted by free online ads like craigslist. Thanks to internet media, publishing is now cheap or almost free, and advertising is much more efficient and in some areas, cheaper. The potential for disruption is ripe.

Problem 3: The other big effort is “Get out the Vote”

While most of the dollars go to advertising, a lot of them, and most of the volunteer time, goes to what they call GOTV.

GOTV is so important because US voter turnouts are low. 50-60% in Presidential years, less in off-years. Because of that, by far the most productive use of campaign resources is often not trying to convince an undecided or opposing voter to switch to your side, but simply getting a voter who already supports you but doesn’t care a great deal to actually make the trek to the polls on voting day.

While you might imagine elections are fought and won with one candidate’s ads or speeches or debate performance swaying undecided voters one way or another, the reality is that turnouts are so low that GOTV is what decides a lot of races.

Aside from the basic principle that it’s crazy to decide our leaders based on who has the best system of pushing apathetic voters to come to the polls, it’s also true that GOTV uses a lot of money and resources, and as such is another of the big reasons for problem #1. A lot of the advertising purchased is bought to make existing supporters more likely to turn out as much as it’s there to sway undecideds.

There are many areas for solution here, including increasing the voter turnout to a level where GOTV is not so productive. For example, in many countries, voting is mandatory — you are fined if you don’t vote. Chile gets 95% turnout this way, and Australia at 81% is the worst turnout of the compulsory nations.

It is also possible to increase turnout by making voting super-easy. Options such as online or cell-phone voting, while rife with election security and privacy problems, may be worth the risk if they reduce the power of GOTV — or simply make GOTV much cheaper.

Problem 4: Other campaign costs

While they are in 3rd place, the other campaign costs — travel, events, databases, staff, candidate’s time and many other things — still add up to a lot, and it’s money that must be fundraised. Today, all candidates build impressive computer systems from scratch every 4 years. After the election the system is discarded, because in 4 years, technology will have changed so much it is better to rewrite it from scratch.

Elections, however, are taking place every month around the world, which would justify the constant development of generalized campaign tools. If done open source, they could easily be free to campaigns, saving them lots of resources — and the need to raise money for them.

Problem 5: Buying influence pays off

Candidates raise money because they have to, but donors give it because they get good value in return. Yes, some get the “pure” good value they are supposed to get — the hope that they get a better candidate elected, who will run things closer to the way they want. In a general “for the country” sense, not in a personal benefit sense, but even that’s technically OK if it does not involve doing personal favours.

Sadly, they usually get much more than that. They get personal benefit, even the ability to write drafts of laws and stop laws they dislike. Congress members even have a semi-official “pork” system which spreads federal money around districts, to please voters and also donors.

Worst of all, buying influence can be profitable from a pure financial sense. While Shel Adelson might give money to support his views on foreign policy, corporations and many others give money because they feel they will make a profit in the bottom line. As soon as this profit is possible, it’s almost impossible to stop money from flowing in, no matter what rules you make. (It might be noted that Libertarians believe one of the most compelling arguments for keeping the government out of the economy is that a government that has no ability to hurt or benefit economic interests is one that can’t be bribed to hurt or benefit economic interests.)

This is also what makes corporations interested in donations. Corporations, at least in the pure sense, are interested only in the bottom line, and have a fiduciary duty to the stockholders to care only about shareholder value. Some closely held corporations will also take actions based on direct shareholder political interests, and some corporations, like PACs exist to do nothing else but that.

Some solutions can come from changing the system so that it’s just not as productive to buy politicians. This requires new rules on how they vote, which are hard to get. An ideal system might demand that officials recuse themselves from any vote on any bill which would unduly benefit any of their constituents or voters. Vote trading would attempt to get around this, but it seems crazy that today we think it is their job to look out for their constituents (and unofficially their donors) at the expense of the rest of the country.

The most common solution for this problem is to limit donations, with caps for each donor, and also caps on amount raised or amount spent. Success is highly mixed in this area.

Paths to improvement

These nexus points, notable #1, #2 and #5, are the place to look for solutions. While problem #1 can be addressed with limits on donations, fundraising and spending (otherwise known as Campaign Finance Reform) this approach is very challenging. Because of problem #5 in particular, money will “find a way” like water flowing downhill. You may put up a dam but the water will find another channel if it can.

The only defence against issue #5 — that buying politicians is lucrative — is to combine the politician’s core dislike of fundraising with efforts to make it a bit less productive to buy politicians. While money will always try to buy them, if the price goes up, and the need for the money goes down, there can be improvement.

One of the most popular proposals to fix #1 is public funding of campaigns, combined with mandatory or optional limits on fundraising or spending. The latter limits are hard to do under the 1st amendment. This is not because “corporations are people” (a strange meme because that idea never appears in the Citizens United decision that many people imagine it came from) but because freedom of the press, especially for political speech, is not divisible in the 1st amendment. It has always been given to corporations (including ones like the New York Times corporation) and in fact for a century or more, until the rise of the blogging era, almost all press of significance have been corporations.

Attempts to limit what sort of political ads that rich people and corporations may run are extremely difficult under the 1st amendment, as the court has said, and in spite of the terrible problem caused by the influence of money in politics, the 1st amendment deservedly remains untouched. Much of the argument around this case (and Citizen’s United) has been of the form, “Corruption is horribly bad, so the court should decide the 1st amendment doesn’t protect it.” Many things the 1st amendment protects are bad, but we’ve decided letting the government decide which are good or bad is worse. Here, we can add to that the important sense that giving congress extra control over how their elections are run is another very bad idea.

In coming weeks, I will outline alternate solutions. But I also believe neither I, nor anybody else have thought up all the possible solutions. Politics, advertising and media are in a state of flux thanks to new technologies that I and my compatriots have built. Whether you think the future is bright or dark, I can assure you it’s different, and may options for solution to this problem are out there, even those we may not see as yet.

Plus other broken things

Compounding these problems are extreme gerrymandering, the ridiculously long length of political campaigns in the U.S., and the war intentionally waged against labor organizations, which would otherwise provide a balancing effect to wealthy individuals' and corporations' campaign contributions.

Gerrymandering etc

Good point, I should include that. I wrote a solution to that some time ago, though it is only a solution in the sense that it’s a rule that can be easily understood and enforced. Getting the political will to have such a rule is another issue.

media awareness

What about training citizens to ignore political ads and creating a universal global reference center such as Wikipedia where voters can decide for themselves whom to vote for? If the ads are stripped of their power the incentive to buy politicians is reduced.

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