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It’s Not Just the Economy (Stupid)

January 21st, 2010 . by economistmom

Why did Martha Coakley lose Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat?  And why does health care reform appear to be going down in flames?

I don’t think that either one of those misfortunes for the Democrats has caused the other.  Rather, they’re both symptoms of the same problem, and I don’t think it’s (just) “the economy, stupid”–that is, it’s nothing that can be explained just by economic statistics, and neither can it be blamed entirely on forces beyond the Democrats’ (human) control.

In Thursday’s front page story in the Washington Post, Michael Shear seems to nail it–not by his reference to the measurable “economic pain” of the middle class, but by the psychology he describes (emphasis added):

President Obama on Wednesday blamed the Democrats’ stunning loss of their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate on his administration’s failure to give voice to the economic frustrations of the middle class, a disconnect that White House aides vowed to quickly address as they continue to work to advance the president’s agenda.

Obama said the relentless pursuit of his domestic policies — and a failure to adequately explain their virtues — had left Americans with a “feeling of remoteness and detachment” from the flurry of government actions in Washington.

We were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

I think there’s an important lesson here for the Administration, not about how to construct wise policies, but how to promote them to the American people.  At first it was fine and good for Obama to be so inspirational and encouraging of great expectations, from the campaign trail all the way through the “honeymoon” period of his Administration (the first couple months?).  But when it comes to the real work of really major policymaking (e.g., health care reform), it’s not enough to just inspire and then basically tell the American people to “leave the details up to us and don’t worry your pretty little heads about them.”  In promoting their health reform agenda, the Administration’s lack of details on the hard choices left many people (those without “blind faith”) confused and feeling like something was surely being pulled over on them.  (If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is…)

Policymakers, led by the Obama Administration, have been so busy trying to get fiscal stimulus done and then health reform done that they failed to keep real Americans “in the loop” in the process.  They’ve been working on these huge public policy issues from a high altitude in a very academic manner from the top down, instead of at the grassroots level, in a plain talk manner from the bottom (the real people) up.  I think the dispassionate, disengaged campaign and even demeanor of Coakley personifies the general problem of how the (mostly Democratic) policy leaders have approached health care reform and all other big economic policies they’ve tried to sell the American public on.

This should teach us a lesson on how to approach deficit reduction, successfully.  It’s no longer going to be acceptable to the American public that the Administration and Congress “spare them” the ugly details.  They won’t have faith in the good in the policies if they aren’t clearly explained the tradeoffs (the “bad”).  And if they are “spared” the details of the tradeoffs, they are left to assume they have no say in which tradeoffs will be made.  Ask the people what tradeoffs they’re willing to make, and hear them out and work with them (not above them) to smooth out the disagreements among them, and the people become much more committed to the cause and trusting of the process and the policymakers who ultimately write and pass the legislation. It seems to me there’s no better model for this than the Concord Coalition’s “fiscal stewardship project”–which involved diverse groups of concerned citizens from across the country. If the Obama Administration is serious about deficit reduction, they’ll need to listen and talk with groups like this throughout the process of trying to reduce the deficit.  They can’t just go it alone, even with the help of some high-flying commission.  (More on that issue tomorrow.)

Please don’t take this as political analysis, because I’m not a political analyst.  It’s just that a fellow blogger friend of mine asked me today whether I thought the MA election was all about “jobs” (”the economy, stupid”)–and my first instinct was that no, I think it’s way beyond “the economy, stupid” and anything we could point to in the economic data.  I think it’s all about how the politicians have handled the economy pretty well, but still left the people feeling left behind in the process.

[**UPDATE (Sat. am):  here's the Politics Daily story by Joann Weiner (published on Friday) that got me thinking about this.]

27 Responses to “It’s Not Just the Economy (Stupid)”

  1. comment number 1 by: SteveinCH

    Diane,

    Maybe you should be a political analyst or commentator. For my money, you’ve got it mostly right. I think the disconnect with and mistrust in Washington is what is going on here. The difference is that Obama is trying to do some very big things. In a world where people don’t trust you, that’s pretty difficult.

    I actually believe this is part of a larger societal problem, a weakening trust in institutions that can be relied on to report fact as opposed to spin. You see this prevalently on the web and in the cable news business. In a world where facts are unclear, lack of confidence in the government is an even larger issue.

    I do think you miss one important element of the problem. I’ll call it the refusal to engage. There was a bit too much of “the details are too complex for you to understand” combined with only an ill-intentioned, greedy, or stupid human being would oppose health care reform (or cap and trade or the stimulus). Imputing stupidity or evil intent to your opponents makes them not want to listen to your arguments even when you take the time to make them.

    As to reducing the deficit, I think this is the crux of the debate I’ve been having with Brooks. Without reducing the policy complexities to pudding, you need to come up with a way to put simple choices and their consequences in front of people, where those consequences run the gamut of policy choices available. Can you tell, I’m about to write the President and Senator Gregg to volunteer to be the Exec Dir of a budget commission if it should come to pass.

    Happy Evening to you.

  2. comment number 2 by: SteveinCH

    And in a completely off topic moment, let me seek the wisdom of other readers about today’s SCOTUS decision. It seems to me much ado about nothing for the following reason.

    Old world — company wants influence, company starts a PAC, PAC spends money

    New world — company wants influence, company spends money

    From my pov, it seems a more honest way of doing exactly the same thing but I must be missing something given all of the outrage.

  3. comment number 3 by: Brooks

    Diane / Steve,

    The general lack of trust in our leadership in D.C. (Congress and the White House), the need to make a solution to our long-term fiscal imbalance politically feasible, and today’s SCOTUS ruling all converge and point sharply to the need to establish a campaign finance system of mostly public funding, voluntary (to avoid any Fifth Amendment problem) but made so attractive (in terms of matching multiples and flexible caps when needed to be competitive) that there is little/no advantage to opting out.

    I have long felt that one of the major obstacles to making fiscal responsibility politically feasible is the lack of trust in government, particularly insofar as people think that they are being (or would be) asked to sacrifice to an unfair degree because special interests (e.g., an industry or profession or union) uses big money political contributions to escape their respective “fair share” of sacrifice. A research report I read last year supported my sense that the above is a major obstacle — I recommend reading http://www.viewpointlearning.com/publications/reports/AWW_FINAL-1.pdf .

    Today’s Supreme Court ruling will make this situation even worse* (regardless of whether it has great or little constitutional merit, which I’m not addressing).

    The mostly public funding system I describe would not only move our democracy closer to the principle of one person, one vote, but would also be the best investment taxpayers have ever made, investing a couple of billion dollars each cycle and reaping a return that would dwarf the size of the investment in the form of reduced/avoided wasteful spending on subsidies / tax breaksfavorable regulations, protections, and other favorable treatment for special interests at the expense of taxpayers and consumers.

    The Fair Elections Now Act would be a step in the right direction. See http://www.publicampaign.org/node/38166 and if you see fit, donate, sign onto their form letter for Congress, etc.

    * Steve, although I haven’t yet read up on details, I think at least one big thing you’re missing is that, per my understanding, corporations previously were prohibited from using corporate treasury funds to fund political ads, etc. — they had to form PACs and fund the PACs via other sources of funds — but now if Exxon-Mobile wants to spend $100 million or any amount of it’s corporate funds trashing Candidate X and promoting Candidate Y, I think it’s now free to do so, although it can’t contribute directly to Candidate Y’s campaign. If anyone has a refinement/correction of any of the above, please comment.

  4. comment number 4 by: Brooks

    Steve,

    Re: a larger societal problem, a weakening trust in institutions that can be relied on to report fact as opposed to spin. You see this prevalently on the web and in the cable news business. In a world where facts are unclear, lack of confidence in the government is an even larger issue.

    Indeed. American political discourse and American politics seem to be suffering increasingly from what I call the Partisan-Industrial Complex, including it’s more-than-willing audiences who are more interested in feel-good oversimplification and misplaced self-righteousness than in a good-faith search for truth and reason, and who therefore seek and use news/opinion media as a drunk uses a lamppost: more for support than illumination. I think you’d fine this book interesting and very worthwhile, and I wish I could get everyone in America (and the world) to read it http://www.amazon.com/True-Enough-Learning-Post-Fact-Society/dp/0470050101

  5. comment number 5 by: Jim Glass

    let me seek the wisdom of other readers about today’s SCOTUS decision. It seems to me much ado about nothing for the following reason…

    Multiple studies say the impact of political campaign contributions is greatly exaggerated in the public mind.

    For instance, from three MIT professors, “
    Why Is There So Little Money in Politics?
    “.

    The New York Times wrote about this
    ~~~

    With so much at stake, economists have long wondered why businesses and interest groups do not contribute more to political campaigns. [Total contributions to national campaigns in 1999 and 2000] were only 0.15 percent of annual federal spending.

    For perspective, spending on advertising and promoting cigarettes was five times what was spent in all elections held in 2000….
    ~~~

    Now the impact of lobbying is something else, as the story continues to explain.
    ~~

    Old world — company wants influence, company starts a PAC, PAC spends money

    New world — company wants influence, company spends money

    From my pov, it seems a more honest way of doing exactly the same thing but I must be missing something given all of the outrage.

    I think you are very near right. Money, like water, flows to its level. Put in obstacles, it just flows around. Campaign contribution restrictions do a lot less to reduce the flow of money than to give all the lawyers who organize PACs and see that all the rules are followed (or safely evaded) get their take. (Speaking against personal interest as a lawyer, ahem.)

    As to all the outrage, a lot of people enjoy outrage, it makes them feel righteous and good, which they enjoy.

    But as to how well-informed and justified that it is…

    I bet you more than 19 out of 20 of the seriously outraged believe and will tell you: “All these obscenely massive campaign contributions have already rotted American politics, now it will become only worse…!!!”

    You won’t find even 1 in 20 who will tell you: “Economists have long wondered why campaign contributions are so small, why there is so little money in politics. That’s good, in my mind.

    “I wonder if this will increase them — I’m outraged, because I wouldn’t like that.”

  6. comment number 6 by: B Davis

    Brooks wrote:

    I have long felt that one of the major obstacles to making fiscal responsibility politically feasible is the lack of trust in government, particularly insofar as people think that they are being (or would be) asked to sacrifice to an unfair degree because special interests (e.g., an industry or profession or union) uses big money political contributions to escape their respective “fair share” of sacrifice.

    The mostly public funding system I describe would not only move our democracy closer to the principle of one person, one vote, but would also be the best investment taxpayers have ever made, investing a couple of billion dollars each cycle and reaping a return that would dwarf the size of the investment in the form of reduced/avoided wasteful spending on subsidies / tax breaksfavorable regulations, protections, and other favorable treatment for special interests at the expense of taxpayers and consumers.

    I’ve long thought that as well. About ten year ago, I looked at the numbers for the 1995-1996 election cycle and there was about $2.6 billion campaign contributions to the Presidential, Senate, and House candidates. That’s less than one tenth of once percent of the federal budget receipts for those two years. That is much less than any estimate that I’ve heard of the “wasteful spending on subsidies / tax breaks, favorable regulations, protections, and other favorable treatment for special interests” as you put it. I don’t know how we can expect our politicians not to be affected by these political contributions when their very political survival depends on them. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”.

    It may still be possible to allow certain types of private contributions without corrupting the system. Suppose that such contributions could only be made to certain races, not to specific candidates within those races. This would work like the checkbox for contributing to the Presidential Election Campaign at the top of the 1040 form. While many narrow special interests might not contribute under such rules, I wonder if many public companies and organizations might continue to contribute (for the sake of their public image, if nothing else). In any event, I believe that we would do better without any contributions that such rules discouraged.

  7. comment number 7 by: Jim Glass

    “I looked at the numbers for the 1995-1996 election cycle and there was about $2.6 billion campaign contributions to the Presidential, Senate, and House candidates. That’s less than one tenth of once percent of the federal budget receipts for those two years.”

    Exactly. Why so little, compared to what campaign contributions could buy? The MIT professors point out this is evidence that campaign contributions have little effect on political decision making.

    If something worth a trillion dollars (such as the ability to direct a trillion dollars of spending) can be bought then *each* competing interest will be willing to spend up to a trillion dollars to get it. But all competing interests combined spend only less than one tenth of one percent.

    I don’t know how we can expect our politicians not to be affected by these political contributions when their very political survival depends on them.

    But how true is this? Does their survival depend on it in most cases?

    When money goes to a politician it could be either “bribery” by the person paying, buying the politician’s vote, or “extortion” by the politician, extracting rent from his constituents who have to pay him “or else”. Why assume it is one and not the other?

    How to tell the difference? Well, a logical starting point is to look at who has the power in the relationship.

    If the politician is insecure, has many competitors, could lose his job, *needs money* to keep it, the power is with the contributors over the politician.

    If the politician is rock-solid secure, has no threat to his seat, has legislative, administrative and bureaucratic force on his side, as a monopoly power-holder for the jurisdiction (because there is no threat to his seat) then the power is with the politician over the contributors.

    Well, either could be the case in any given situation — but in our real world, more than 90% of legislative seats are gerrymandered so the incumbent has no significant opposition, often literally no opposition at all.

    So how threatened is their survival, really?

    Take, oh, Charlie Rangel here in NYC.

    [] His seat is as rock-solid as any seat can imaginably be — there aren’t many registered Republicans in Harlem, he hasn’t had even a primary challenge in 37 years (both the local and national Democratic machines would never allow it). He lives like a political king, as has been rather well documented in the press lately.

    [] He has immense political power as top man on the Ways and Means committee, which governs federal taxes(!) among other things, as well as in NY politics.

    Charlie also happens to receive massive campaign contributions, at the very top of all Democrats (along with such other perks as *four* rent controlled apartments in NYC, one used as an office (!) when the law says you can have only one as a primary residence).

    Is Charlie’s survival really dependent on getting all those contributions?

    By the tests above, do they look more like bribery or extortion?

    The MIT professors also mentioned this as a reason for why the evidence shows campaign contributions have so little effect on legislators’ behavior.

    When legislators are secure in gerrymandered districts, the contributors have no leverage over them. The power runs the other way. The legislators do what they want and say to their constituents: “If you think you might ever have a problem with the government and would want my help resolving it, you’d better be friendly to me until then.”

    IMHO, people who are concerned about what’s really systematically wrong with the way our political system is structured, in reducing its responsiveness to average voters, are looking at the wrong thing in campaign contributions — missing the forest for the trees.

    They should be looking at *gerrymandering*. When >90% of all seats are “automatic reelection”, how responsive are politicians going to be? Who are they really going to be responding to? (How can even evil, sordid campaign money be effective in turning an election when there isn’t one?)

    Moreover, gerrymandering doesn’t have any constitutional arguments in its defense. It’s is just plain sordid back-room deal making politics that the politicians use to insulate themselves from accountability.

    A much bigger problem, much easier to fix legally. That’s where I’d push my political reform efforts.

  8. comment number 8 by: hiero2

    quote: “think it’s all about how the politicians have handled the economy pretty well, but still left the people feeling left behind in the process.”

    Kinda. Not entirely. What happened, and I was an on-the-ground witness, here in MA, was that the right wing Republican faction got the opportunity to make hay with the same types of lies that they have used to lay the Democrats low for the last 40 years. There were just enough people who were not outraged at this, and just enough people who felt “all was well”, so that the lies gained a groundswell of irrational support. “Vote for Brown for your family, for your children, for your future”, when a vote for Brown was in reality more like a vote against all those things. We have repeatedly seen, since JFK, Republicans tarring Democrats with the “spenders” tag, when they were committing far worse spending habits. And, supporting corporate America over individual America, and spouting lies about it while doing it.

    The lapse of the Coakley campaign did not indicate a weakness, nor a failure. What it did show was a lapse of moral outrage and rectitude. It enabled the opportunists lying in wait - those same opportunists who gave us 8 years of Bush.

    Disgusting.

  9. comment number 9 by: B Davis

    Jim Glass wrote:

    I looked at the numbers for the 1995-1996 election cycle and there was about $2.6 billion campaign contributions to the Presidential, Senate, and House candidates. That’s less than one tenth of once percent of the federal budget receipts for those two years.

    Exactly. Why so little, compared to what campaign contributions could buy? The MIT professors point out this is evidence that campaign contributions have little effect on political decision making.

    That assumes a simplistic X dollars buys Y benefits relationship, regardless of the total amount. It also assumes that all contributors are only looking to buy favors and all politicians are only looking to dole those favors out. Of course, the real situation is much more complex. Many contributors may feel that they are simply supporting their favored candidate or simply playing the game to gain just their fair share of consideration. Likewise, many politicians may feel that they are just doing what is necessary in raising money so that they can push what they believe are the best policies for the country. Still, I would argue that our current campaign system has a very corrosive effect. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a politician to understand something, when the contributions to fund his campaign depend upon his not understanding it”. That politician my be the most noble of public servants. But asking him to rule against those who are funding his campaigns is setting up a difficult conflict for him. Do we really want to place unnecessary conflicts on our politicians when they have so many other critical issues to deal with?

    If something worth a trillion dollars (such as the ability to direct a trillion dollars of spending) can be bought then *each* competing interest will be willing to spend up to a trillion dollars to get it. But all competing interests combined spend only less than one tenth of one percent.

    Of course, you know that the great majority of federal spending, especially mandatory spending, is pretty well locked in. Only the margins of spending are up for grabs, so to speak. Likewise, only the margins of tax policy are up for grabs. But those margins can add up over time as we end up with bloated spending programs and a tax code riddled with special interest deductions.

    I don’t know how we can expect our politicians not to be affected by these political contributions when their very political survival depends on them.

    But how true is this? Does their survival depend on it in most cases?

    Most, if not all, politicians run relatively expensive campaigns and raise a great deal of money to pay for them. Many with very secure seats may funnel some of that money to the party and run slightly less expensive campaigns but they all run campaigns, nevertheless. Hence, to be a politician, you must raise money. That is what I mean by “political survival”.

    When money goes to a politician it could be either “bribery” by the person paying, buying the politician’s vote, or “extortion” by the politician, extracting rent from his constituents who have to pay him “or else”. Why assume it is one and not the other?

    “Bribery” and “extortion” are just two extremes of the same problem. A company that contributes nothing may fear that their interests will receive less attention or that their lobbyists will receive less access. Some may choose to call this extortion. That same company might believe that contributing a bit more than average will cause their interests to receive more attention or their lobbyists to receive more access. Some may choose to call this bribery. Whatever one chooses to call them, they are both caused by a system that depends on private parties contributing to candidates who need that money to run their elections. If we had public financing, these particular forms of “bribery” and “extortion” would disappear.

  10. comment number 10 by: SteveinCH

    “If we had some form of public financing, these particular forms of “bribery” and “extortion” would disappear.”

    But other forms would still exist and those other forms would likely be harder to see than a more direct form of contribution and involve a whole lot of deadweight loss in the form of election lawyers and accountants and staffs and so forth.

    If you assume influence will continue to be bought as long as the government has so much money and power ( a safe assumption imo), then transparency is the best of a bad set of solutions.

  11. comment number 11 by: mainstreet man

    Diane,
    You’ve opened Pandora’s Box and touched on a raw nerve for many, including myself. I’m pretty new to your blog, but today’s post seems to be more heavily weighed toward a mother’s intuition (or her political leaning filter?) rather than analytical rigor.

    I totally agree that the MA Senate race was more than “it’s the economy- stupid.” Having said that, however, TPOTUS and the majority in power (Dems) have ignored the serious need for jobs in lieu of forwarding their political/progressive agenda. And please don’t make reference to the “Recovery Act” as job stimulator. Any unbiased individual would see that it was pure pork provided as favors to mostly Dem supporters/causes. As an economist, the phrase “saved jobs” should be like fingers on the chaulkboard. Why/how does the White House get away with such fantasy and unsubstantiated facts? We would have skewered Dubya if muttered such a false theory as fact.

    Anyway, I don’t want to dump on this reply as a remorseful Obama voter (which I am!) but I have to take exception to your ending line of “I think it’s all about how the politicians have handled the economy pretty well, but still left the people feeling left behind in the process.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Obama and the Dems have not handled the economy pretty well- it’s been nothing short of failure! Despite their “assistance,” unemployment has continued to spiral upward. The $787 billion non-stimulus Recovery Act was to prevent the unemployment rate from exceeding 8%! In the future, Diane, please refrain from public relations- type cheerleading and stick to the facts.

    Also, props to Jim Glass. your comments on the SCOTUS recent ruling were spot-on. In addition, the ruling might actually level the playing field since the unions (read- union leaders) have been unconditionally supporting candidates (read- Dems) for years. My wife is a techer and pays union dues to the NEA. She and her fellow teachers have absolutely NO say in the NEA giving millions of $ to Dem candidates. If the unions can give $ and run candidate attack/support ads, I say let’s allow everyone equal opportunity to do so.

  12. comment number 12 by: Jim Glass

    Many, if all, politicians run relatively expensive campaigns and raise a great deal of money to pay for them

    Really? Those >90% of legislators who are gerrymandered into totally safe districts run expensive campaigns using a great deal of money? Why would they do that without opposition?

    Perhaps we need to define “great deal of money”.

    Once again: “For perspective, spending on advertising and promoting cigarettes was five times what was spent in all elections held in 2000 …”

    So an amount equal to only 20% of the cigarette industry’s one-year marketing budget, spread out over all elections nationwide in a Presidential election year, among all candidates of all parties, is a “great deal of money” per candidate. OK.

    It’s just interesting to me that competitive national politics is such a smaller “industry” than cigarettes, and obviously a great many others.

    (And so tiny compared to the size of the government that the politicians run — counting not just its trillions of spending, but also the extra trillions of dollars worth of regulatory effects, that can make or break so many business, unions, other interest groups.)

  13. comment number 13 by: Jim Glass

    Since the SCOTUS case has been been mentioned a few times, I think I might clarify a few points about it, since it has been horribly misreported by the press and blogs (as typical…)

    E.g, It does *not* give corporations the right to make political contributions to candidates — that ban since 1907 is still in force.

    The decision was about a specific issue, the reach of McCain-Feingold, and the power the govt claimed through it to restrict free speech. A few brief issue points:

    1) Prior Supreme Court decisions upheld limiting corporate political speech on the “great wealth of big corporations may corrupt” rationale.

    But McC-F pushed its application far beyond that to all corporations, including: small businesses, labor union, and non-profits (the Sierra Club).

    2) McC-F hugely expanded the “power to restrict” the govt claimed to have. The govt really lost the case when, at oral argument, in response to Justices’ questions, it claimed the power to ban books — even on trivial justification. E.g., (quoting SCOTUSblog) :

    “Justice Souter — who tends to support government regulation of campaign spending — looked and sounded stunned when Stewart argued that the government would have the power to forbid a labor union to use its own funds to pay an author to write a campaign biography that would later be published in book form by Random House.”

    And the govt didn’t stop there. In responses to follow-up questions, it said McC-F gave it power to ban advertising of election-related toys with no campaign message, “Obama-McCain Action Figures, $9.99 a set” … that if the Sierra Club as a corporation had published an election related environmental position statement, the Bush FEC could have banned it … etc.

    3) Newspapers and the press. Of course McC-F gives an “exception” for these. But there are two big problems with that.

    (i) One, often commented upon, is unfairness and gaming. The NY Times and Fox gets an exception. But why do Sulzberger and Murdoch, with their big rich corporations, get permission to push their political views on everybody while owners of other small corporations are silenced? Suppose Bill Gates buys a small-town newspaper — can he spend a billion dollars on politics through it? Suppose I buy a mimeo machine, or set up a web site or a blog, who decides if I get the “press exception”? The govt said: the govt does.

    (ii) Secondly, and really more disturbing, the “exception” in the law for the press is an exception — that means it can be revoked. By saying the press is granted an exception to not be treated like other corps, the govt said the press is subject to the rules just like other corps, except for the exception the politicians deigned to grant it — which the FEC or politicians can thereafter modify, change, reduce, revoke.

    4) Prior restraint issue. With McC-F pushing the rules on everybody no matter how small — unions, retailers with toys, publishers, bloggers — in so many areas, how could many of them not be intimidated into silence?

    Gov: “The FEC would never be unreasonable” Justices: “What’s unreasonable to a regulating bureaucracy? Some penalties are draconian. A small business that can’t afford to risk them to be safe would have to ask for permission beforehand to do something, or be quiet.” Gov: “It wouldn’t have to, so no prior restraint. I towuld be no more than sensible as business judgment” “That’s prior restraint”.

    Now, of course, regarding book banning, banning toys, taking over the press, etc., the govt argued “the FEC has the good judgment to never ever do such things, even though it does have the power to, of course it wouldn’t, and the politicians wouldn’t do such things due to political constraints.”

    The Court said in return: You are claiming that, to limit the corrupting power of the massive wealth of big corporations, you have the power to restrict non-profits, unions, and mom-and-pop businesses, to ban books, ban advertising toys, and require parties to “qualify” for freedom of the press. Well, no, you don’t.

    That’s what this case was about. But it hasn’t much been reported that way, eh?

    Now a fundamental point illustrated in all this is that to keep people from engaging in self-interested campaign activity freely (on the assumptions such is actually bad) one must grant power over them to other people who will then direct political activity for their own benefit equally self-interestedly — but with a great deal more power. This is exactly the opposite of making things more one-person, one-vote — it makes things less so.

    Politicians are as self-interested, as interested in expanding their own power, as anyone else. If not more so. This and the law of unintended consequences should be kept at the front of one’s mind together when planning any kind of political “reform”.

    The influence of big, wealthy corporations is a problem? Fix: Pass a law giving the govt power to ban corporations from using such. Sounds right.

    Next thing: The govt is claiming the power to ban unions from publishing campaign biographies? … Ban books? … Ban samll retailers from advertising toys?

    McC-F actually banned campaigning activity timed to occur within 30 days of an election!
    Does that rule sound more like elected politicians (a) cracking down on the power of “big corporations” (as the rule is applied to small ones, unions and non-profits) or (b) protecting their incumbent selves.

    Who’d have imagined that after giving the politicians power to do something “good”, they’d have used it to help themselves?

    That’s what this case was really about.

  14. comment number 14 by: Jim Glass

    “If we had some form of public financing, these particular forms of “bribery” and “extortion” would disappear.”

    But other forms would still exist and those other forms would likely be harder to see.

    For sure the’d exist, and maybe they’d be harder to see — or maybe they’d be plain and obvious, but once built into the system with their special interests behind them, impossible to get rid of.

    A very common psychological error is thinking: “In our complex, world here’s a problem. In my mind I have an ideal solution that if adopted will eliminate that problem. And it won’t create other problems that are worse.” Because the fix is imagined and ideal. Forgetting the law of unexpected consequences.

    As noted re McCain-Feingold above, one starts trying to fix the problem of the super big and wealthy corporations having undue political influence, and ends up er, gets to the govt claiming it can ban unions from publishing biographies of candidates, ban “action figure” toys, decide which web sites qualify for the press “exception” to campaign speech restrictions and which don’t, etc. (Thankfully we didn’t “end up” there — the govt didn’t get beyond arguing that).

    Now, people spending their own money to support the candidates they want is (supposedly) a problem. Apparent fix: Public finance of campaigns. Have the govt pay for the candidates’ campaigns and get the people, self-interested as they are, out of it.

    Snag: For “govt” say “politicians”. Now you have the politicians paying for and setting the rules for their own re-election campaigns. How is that going to work out?

    Before assuming it will eliminate corruption and toxic political influence, one had better test it!

    Test: NYC has public finance of campaigns. And to put the small candidate on an equal footing with the well-connected — a good idea, is it not? — candidates get up to $6 from the city for each dollar of contributions they raise (up to certain limits). And corporations are banned from contributing. (Fight the power!)

    Result (real case): A small candidate “runs” for Manhattan boro prez. She gets 6,000 votes (less than the Marijuana Reform Party candidate got) collects $140,000 from the city, and divides it among self and “campaign workers” consisting of family, friends, local party cronies, who chipped in. Even losing the election sooo badly, they don’t feel so bad about it.

    It works like this. I run for Manhattan Boro Prez on the Whig Restoration Party line, collect $10,000 in campaign contributions from my friends, family, associates and a fair number of WRP “workers” … collect $60,000 from taxpayers as the result of that … repay, er, pay my friends and the WPR workers $30,000 for “working” on my campaign or renting it stuff or whatever (they get 200% interest on their “contributions” in a couple months) … and I spend the other $40,000 on my campaign as I see fit. (Lots of entertaining of important people to do!) … After getting fewer votes than Marijuana Reform Party we all walk away, not so unhappy.

    BTW, while corporations are banned from contributing, unions are not. That means union dollars “influence” 6 for 1. Union influence has not receded with this system. :-)

    One doesn’t need the brains of Meyer Lansky to see how such a system becomes replete with graft, influence peddling, and looting of the public fisc. (Any time political clubhouses can multiply money 6-1 …)

    But aren’t there rules against all this, and investigations? Sure, sort of … well … not really.

    The snag is that the same politicians who created the system for financing their re-election campaigns also wrote the rules for defining what “abuses” are (e.g, it is perfectly legal for your friends to contribute to your campaign, then get paid by you for working for it.) — and for investigating them … and for funding investigations. It turns out the Board of Elections is the last of the great patronage dens where political operatives are parked, who don’t really want to investigate their friends who got them their jobs, and don’t have the budget to do so anyhow.

    And under this system the incumbent successful re-election rate is 97%.

    (Tammany Hall’s famous George Washington Plunkitt once gave a famous talk on honest graft. )

    Well, that qualifies as “some form of public financing”.

    Now, supporters of campaign public financing might reasonably answer: “That’s sure not the kind of system we imagine or would put in!”

    But they don’t get to choose. It is the politicians who will design the system that pays for their own re-election.

    They are 90% gerrymandered to total safety, in NYC 100% Democrat. Once the “reformers” start whipping up general popular support for the idea they say, “Yes, absolutely! And we know how to implement it!” The unions jump on board with all their political power, “and we’ll eliminate corporate political influence peddling too!” They bring the NY Times endorsement, and once all that gets going who can argue against “good government reform”?

    Now you (not personally, the “reformer”) — *if* you can get the details of how the bill is getting drafted behind closed doors — might begin to object: “Hey, this is beginning to look like an ‘honest graft’ and an incumbent re-election machine. I didn’t want *this*”

    Well, too bad. What are you going to do about it? Incur the wrath of all your fellow reformers because you refused to support their reform bill just because it “isn’t perfect”? Vote Republican?

    The problem with telling politicians to enact campaign finance reform to reduce the influence of special interest groups is that it shifts power to the most interested group of all.

    Telling politicians to write the rules for their own-re-election is like telling wolves to write the rules for protecting sheep.

    One had better be alert to the possibility of unanticipated consequences. And give everything a good full test run before reaching conclusions.

  15. comment number 15 by: Brooks

    Re: It’s Not Just The Economy

    As I see it, yes and no. I think there is a powerful “halo effect” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halo_effect ) from public perception of how well the president is handling the economy (along with an exaggerated sense of how much responsibility for the economy is attributable to the president). I think if the economy is awful for a while and without strong expectation of great improvement soon, a president’s perceived competence and performance in every other area suffers greatly, even in unrelated policy areas, as does his overall popularity and overall performance rating. I think, for example, that perceptions of Reagan’s foreign policy (and general approach and philosophy of foreign policy) were seen much more favorably during the good economic years than they would have otherwise. Similarly, I think Carter’s foreign policy and general approach to it and competency in it would not have been seen so negatively if the economy had not been terrible (”stagflation”, inflation, high unemployment, extremely high interest rates [engineered by his Fed appointee Volcker], oil shortages, etc.).

    So is it “just the economy”? Again, yes and no. I think a deep, sustained and perhaps even worsening recession (and at least the lack of strong optimism for the near future re: economic/employment improvement) will generally have people primed for a negative view of the president and his policies pretty much across the board. Particularly with the encouragement of partisan actors, the “public” will tend to generalize their negative perception of — and anger at — the president on the economy (in terms of the president’s perceived competence and often also his priorities) to other (even essentially unrelated) policy areas and to their overall view of the president. The bad economy thus generates that strong bias and transfer of anger, resulting in a significantly stronger negative reaction to various policies than would otherwise occur.

    The above is based only on my general sense of public opinion dynamics, not on correlation analysis of polling data, so take it as such. I haven’t (yet) researched, analyzed and tested my hypothesis empirically, but I may do so if I remember anything after all the beer I drink today during the Vikings game (Go Vikes!! I found the one real Vikings bar in Manhattan and it’s a wild scene). If anyone has empirical stuff (even anecdotal), please share.

    As for the whole thing about Obama supposedly not communicating well enough — not doing the “I feel your pain” thing, and not taking X% of the time about jobs instead of Y% — I think that, given that he has indeed devoted a considerable portion of his rhetorical time to the matter and has taken very substantial action (in fact, much greater action for the benefit of the short term [i.e., stimulus] than many of his critics think they would have liked), I don’t think that’s why he and the Democrats are having some trouble with the public. If he spoke all the time about the economy and jobs, in addition to his/their stimulus policies, people would probably just say he is all talk and they are sick of him supposedly trying to smooth talk as cover for his supposed incompetence. I’d also note that I think there is a self-serving tendency among supporters of one “side” to think that unpopularity of their side’s policies are due to inadequate communication rather than to the public’s actual preferences (if they were reasonably well-informed). I don’t think it’s inadequate communication in this case, but nor do I think public perceptions of policies such as the current healthcare “reform” efforts are anywhere near independent of their perceptions of the president’s/Democrats’ priorities and competence on the economy, their frustration, fear and anger about the economy, their attribution (to some substantial degree) of blame for the economy to the president (and secondarily to the party in power in Congress). To the contrary, I think the above views and feelings about the economy heavily influence those on other policies.

  16. comment number 16 by: Brooks

    I’d add to my comment above that, other things equal, one might expect that a president and Congress would get points (or at least not lose points) for seeking to provide greater security of healthcare coverage to a nation of people who are feeling great job/financial insecurity. Of course, there’s still a segmentation issue — if people think most of the “reform” means taking away and redistributing more of their income to others — but I still think overall that a policy that seeks to provide (almost) everyone this security would not be seen so negatively by so many if not for the aforementioned, negative “halo effect” from perceptions of bad performance by the president (and secondarily Congressional Democrats) on the economy.

    Also, I realize some of those expressing a very negative view and anger at Obama’s/Democrats’ policies (healthcare; stimulus; bailout; etc.) and at Obama himself say their rationale is our growing debt, but here, too, I think perceptions and feelings about the economy have a heavy influence. I don’t think you see many tea party-type rallies angrily protesting rising debt during good economic times (which is somewhat ironic for a nation with our long-term fiscal outlook, since economic good times are our best and most important opportunity to reduce deficits or generate surpluses).

  17. comment number 17 by: SteveinCH

    Brooks,

    Not sure I agree with your general point “other things being equal, on might expect that a president and Congress would get points (or at least not lose points) for seeking to provide greater security of health care coverage…”

    Maybe it’s the other things being equal part but my suspicion is there is a growing backlash against government control coming in the country. In part, it’s driven by the policies of the administration (e.g., cap and trade, HCR). In part, it’s driven by what they see of government (DMV and trash collection) and in part it’s driven by broad public sector versus private sector trends. In this recession, we often say that almost everyone knows at least one person who has lost their job, but how many government employees have?

    I share your perspective that the foundation of the anger is not the debt, debt is a convenient and easy to explain excuse. Rather the bigger issue is government itself, its growth, its competence, and its desire to control us in order to protect us from ourselves.

  18. comment number 18 by: SteveinCH

    Adding to the last point, government can tell us that more spending is good for us but we don’t believe them. Most of us have a simple understanding of how to handle finance…when things get tough you cut back, you don’t spend more.

    When we see government spending more and telling us it’s going to be better for us, we look for evidence of it and don’t really see it (unless we work for state government perhaps). That further undermines confidence.

    If you accept this analysis, the only real option for government to restore confidence is to aggressively attack waste and fraud broadly. Government needs to say…we recognize that times are hard and we are going to improve the efficiency of our operations before we ask for more.

    Remember, most private sector employees these days have been part of efficiency drives. If you work in a plant, you have an annual productivity target you are expected to meet. Where is the comparable effort on the part of government? That is the fundamental issue that government needs to address to begin to regain trust.

  19. comment number 19 by: Brooks

    Steve,

    Re: foundation of the anger is not the debt…the bigger issue is government itself

    Related to the point in my 8:28am comment, I think most of the anger is really generated by the bad economy, but transferred to other issues and to the president and the Democrats. I think a lot of people start with the general fear, frustration and anger from that economic insecurity, generalize their perception that the president (and Congress) are performing poorly on the economy to other issues and to the leaders themselves overall, and — to whatever extent it’s conscious or not — seek out general principles, other policies, etc., as avenues for expressing their displeasure. Put differently, if the economy were doing fine I don’t think you’d have a sizable tea party crowd (not that I know its size now) nor a precipitous drop in approval ratings for Obama simply because of policies that grow government in scope, control, or spending. There would, of course, be people concerned and opposed to such movement, but their numbers and intensity wouldn’t be anything comparable. For example, I don’t remember an outraged tea party movement being sparked by the enactment of Medicare Part D, which was arguably the most fiscally irresponsible legislation in our history.

    Your argument that people are angry over the disparity between trends in job loss in private vs. public sector is interesting, but my guess is that that’s not really a/the primary driver for the same reason given above.

    As for government efficiency efforts, Al Gore led an initiative in the 90s that (apparently) led to a significant reduction in the federal payroll and (apparently) some process improvements/efficiencies, but I don’t have an analysis handy. It was called the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, so if you wish you can Google that.

    But that said, I share the general view that the public sector is generally less efficient than the private sector, not to mention that the “invisible hand” is generally a better allocator of resources (in aggregate, not necessarily for every segment) than is central planning. Recently on a liberal blog I was pointing out to someone the apparent scale (and ease) of Medicare fraud, and he insisted that there is no reason to suspect that the same level of fraud isn’t occurring with private insurers. Intuitively and based on my personal experiences and the gestalt of what I’ve read and heard, I rather doubt it.

    You hit on the other element of “trust” in government discussed in that report to which I linked earlier — again, it’s http://www.viewpointlearning.com/publications/reports/AWW_FINAL-1.pdf . I think you’ll find it interesting and worthwhile if you read it.

    Lastly and most importantly, Go Vikings!

  20. comment number 20 by: SteveinCH

    Brooks,

    Thanks for the links, I will check them out. I’m happy to root for the Vikings today…hope it helps.

    Think a bit about this issue of efficiency. Al Gore led an effort 15 years ago to try to do something about efficiency. Now think about private sector efficiency efforts. Imagine you run manufacturing for a large company and in response to a question about efficiency, you say, “You know, we had an effort on that 15 years ago so we’re probably good.” It’s just an interesting way to look at it.

    I don’t disagree that the primary driver is the economy. I just find that funny because my own view is there is little the Federal government can do about the economy. Honestly, I never blame or credit an administration with the state of the economy because, absent certain fairly crazy policy choices, they don’t have much control over it.

  21. comment number 21 by: Brooks

    Thanks for your support of the Vikes.

    Re: my reference to the Gore thing, I was just mentioning an example of such an effort that perhaps you weren’t aware of. I fully agree that private sector reengineering (”BPR”) and other efficiency-related efforts are much more effective and, well, more efficient in themselves.

    Your last paragraph reminded me of a great political cartoon I saw back in the 90s. Clinton and an aide are looking out a White House window at the sunrise. The aide says “That’s a beautiful sunrise, Mr. President.” Clinton replies “Thank you.”

  22. comment number 22 by: B Davis

    Jim Glass wrote:

    Really? Those >90% of legislators who are gerrymandered into totally safe districts run expensive campaigns using a great deal of money? Why would they do that without opposition?

    Perhaps we need to define “great deal of money”.

    I don’t believe that 90% of legislators are totally “without opposition”. However, I concede that I don’t know how many legislators truly have no opposition and, having only to worry about write-in votes, can run a truly minimal (or even no) campaign. However, it is very easy to look at the totals and averages. If you look at the this FEC page, you’ll see that the 435 House candidate received $991,689,686 in receipts in the 2007-2008 election cycle. That’s an average of $2,279,746. I call that a “great deal of money” for a single House candidate to have to raise.

    For the 35 Senate seats that were contested during that cycle (33 regular and 2 special elections), $436,083,810 was received. That comes out to an average of $12,459,537 per candidate. I call that an even “greater deal of money”!

    Once again: “For perspective, spending on advertising and promoting cigarettes was five times what was spent in all elections held in 2000 …”

    So an amount equal to only 20% of the cigarette industry’s one-year marketing budget, spread out over all elections nationwide in a Presidential election year, among all candidates of all parties, is a “great deal of money” per candidate. OK.

    George Will, who seems like an otherwise intelligent man, made a seemingly flippant remark on “This Week” this morning. As can be seen in the this video clip, he said that “Americans Spend As Much On Tortilla Chips As We Do In Federal Elections Contributions”. Yes, how can any reasonable person suggest that our politicians are being bought with a few bags of tortilla chips! But as the numbers above show, this an deeply flawed reasoning. On average, Our House and Senate candidates received over $2 million and $12 million per candidate, respectively. It may be a small amount compared to our national GDP but it is a huge amount for each candidate (on average) to have to raise. Not only does this make them dependent on these contributions, it also requires that they have to spend a great deal of time raising the money. The good news is that, given the size of our federal budget, we could easily afford public financing to break this dependency that our politicians have on campaign contributions. Instead, we have opponents of public financing twist this around to suggest that these campaign contributions mean little more than tortilla chips to our candidates.

    It’s just interesting to me that competitive national politics is such a smaller “industry” than cigarettes, and obviously a great many others.

    (And so tiny compared to the size of the government that the politicians run — counting not just its trillions of spending, but also the extra trillions of dollars worth of regulatory effects, that can make or break so many business, unions, other interest groups.)

    Once again, it’s the average of over $2 million per House candidate and $12 million per Senate candidate that matters. With all of the complaining these days about how our politicians seem to be unable to make difficult decisions (requiring bipartisan committees and such), we should be doing everything we can to take unnecessary pressure off of them. Requiring that House and Senate candidates raise over $2 million and $12 million per candidate, respectively, per campaign cycle, requiring both a large portion of their time and a possible conflict of interest, seems to be very much an unnecessary pressure. That’s especially true when we could remove that pressure through public financing at such a relatively cheap price.

  23. comment number 23 by: B Davis

    Note: The George Will video clip that I reference in my prior comment is at this link.

  24. comment number 24 by: AMTbuff

    Brooks, I feel your pain, Viking-wise.

    Diane, try this thought experiment. Imagine that McCain had won the 2008 election with full control of Congress. Then imagine that he had spent all year pushing creation of private accounts for Social Security without the support of a single Democrat. Then imagine a special senate election in Montana. Don’t you think the Democrat would breeze to victory in that election?

    The problem is simple: Obama and the Democrats put their partisan agenda first and economic concerns last. The people pulled back on the leash and they will do so again in November.

    Properly done, health care reform could close the long-term fiscal gap. So could private accounts for Social Security. But the people don’t want either of these things now. They don’t like the idea of creating uncertainty about a large fraction of the economy during a major recession. And they especially don’t like adding another major promise to the list of promises that we all know the government cannot afford to keep.

    The Democrats’ 2009 push for universal health coverage will go down in history as one of the stupidest political moves of all time.

    The smart move would have been to enact high-profile recovery-oriented laws with minimal disruptive effects. That way when the recovery happens on its own, the Democrats would get the credit. Now the Democrats will get no credit for the recovery, which will likely be delayed by all the unwise talk of tax increases on business.

  25. comment number 25 by: Jim Glass

    I don’t know how many legislators truly have no opposition

    The Congressional re-election rates for the last decade:

    1998: 98%
    2000: 98%
    2002: 96%
    2004: 98%
    2006: 94%
    2008: 94% — average 96.3%, 3.7% lost

    If one lines up all the races by the challengers’ share of the vote descending and defines
    “competitive races” as the number of which challenger won 50%, that’s about 7.5%.

    If one defines them as number of which the won 37%, that’s 10% — and in that case the winning chances at the lowest margin will be a lot lower than the 37% average chance, so we can really say 90% of seats are fully safe.

    In fact, pollsters like Charlie Cook typically call well more than 90% of seats “safe”

    Of course, this is not only at the federal level,.to quote Wikipedia…

    in 2000, for example, the two dominant parties in the state of California cooperatively redrew both state and federal legislative districts to preserve the status quo, ensuring the electoral safety of the politicians from possibly unpredictable voting by the electorate.

    This move proved completely effective, as no State or Federal legislative office changed party in the 2004 election, with 53 congressional, 20 state senate, and 80 state assembly seats potentially at risk.

    That was 0 for 153.

    Speaking of George Will, this is one of his favorite examples of how politicians put their own personal welfare first above everything else.

    You may remember that 2000 was a redistricting year and in California the Republican party was imploding there, it had just gotten wiped out. California has more Congressional seats than any other state, and by redistricting to create competitive races, the Democrats could have forced a huge pickup of seats towards national control of Congress. Will believes the Democrats might’ve taken Congress right there.

    Instead, to protect their own seats — and avoid any risk or inconvenience to themselves, no matter how small — they left every single vulnerable Republican equally protected. As bitter as the Democrats were at the Republican after Dubya “stole” the election — it didn’t matter enough to the California Democrats to take any risk themselves.

    First things first! In politics, that’s always the incumbents’ self-interest.

    (Note well how, despite being supposedly bitter competitors, Democratic and Republican incumbents can really work wonderfully well together in a totally bipartisan way, when it is in their personal self-interest to do so.)

    If the problem is “disenfranchisement” of voters — so politicians aren’t answerable to voters, and public trust in government falls — what’s really the biggest contributor to it?

    (a) People giving their own money to the candidates they want (and the candidates needing it, so they heed the people.)

    (b) Election districts set up no nobody’s vote matters. Note that once voters are deprived of choice, not only is the minority party totally disenfranchised but majority party voters are almost equally so.

    NYC is 100% Democratic. Suppose a voter who is Democrat doesn’t like, say, what the Democrats are doing at the unions’ behest to public schools. What’s he going to do about it? Vote Republican?

    Government gets bigger and bigger, creating ever more layers of bureaucracy and administration, and ever more employees and interest groups dependent on it who have a need to influence it — and the legislature. Not just by campaign contributions, but also by delivering votes directly, mobilizing campaign labor, promising comfortable future jobs, giving Charlie four rent-controlled apartments, etc. etc.

    When the voters have no ability to vote for anyone but the incumbent, who is the incumbent going to listen to? The voters or the interest groups?

    Is it coincidence that California with that “0 for 153″ is in political gridlock on course to fiscal disaster?

    Personally, I’d love to have the problem of having the election outcome in every single district in the US be open to the charge of being “bought” by campaign contributors’ money.

    Because that would mean all the elections were actually contested, and all the candidates were actually heeding the voters — which would be a far, far better political world than the one we are in now.

  26. comment number 26 by: Jim Glass

    Back to campaign finance…

    Not only have incumbents won 96.3% of Congressional elections when they’ve run over the last decade, but they also do more than >90% of campaign spending. (E.g., 92.8% in the 2000 cycle).

    That’s entirely logical — over 96% of incumbents win, 90% have no serious challenge — who’s going to waste money by giving it to sure losers?

    Considerations here…

    [] When incumbents win over 96% of the time spending over 90% of the money, does it really look like their “survival is threatened” by competitions forcing them to collect all that money — lest they be exterminated by their non-financed, often totally non-existent challengers?

    Or might there be some other force directing the flow of that money to them? With them using the “our very survival this threatened if we don’t get this money” line just being a way to framing things to look better? Politicians aren’t always entirely honest in their public presentations — ask John Edwards. They spin things in their own self-interest.

    (”Charlie Rangel, for a guy who hasn’t had an opponent in 30 years, you’re collecting one whole lot of money.” … “Yes, I am, it’s horrible and I wish I wasn’t forced to do it by threat to my survival. But if I didn’t some opponent might arise and I could be exterminated before I knew it!”).

    [] As to campaign finance reform, if (in spite of the dearth of contested elections) one feels it’s needed because incumbents are under such pressure to raise money as a matter of survival…

    [and] we could remove that pressure through public financing at such a relatively cheap price.
    … well, the thing is, the issue isn’t the “price”. Nobody says the issue is price, not even George Will. The issue is the probable result.

    When one says “we should have campaign finance reform”, what one is *really* saying is…. “we should tell the politicians to write all the rules governing and financing their own re-election. We trust them!”

    Now imagine that when the California politicians were doing their post-2000 redistricting they were also told: “While you’re at it, write up new campaign rules to apply to yourself and all challengers to you, that will be more fair for all.” They’d have been *happy* to do it. But looking at what they did with their gerrymander, which left them getting re-elected 153 of 153, what do you think the result of their new campaign finance rules would have been?

    Hey, I want better campaign finance rules too. I want to improve life in all kinds of ways. I want to find cures for cancer, lots of things — but the world is complex, and imagining an improvement doesn’t make it so, or keep one from making things worse.

    Here’s a challenge: When coming up with a new campaign finance law, what rules would you make legislators follow to make sure they don’t simply grab more power to protect themselves, by stretching their power to the ability to, say:

    … ban labor unions from writing campaign biographies to be published by Random House … ban retailers from selling non-partisan “Obama-McCain Action Figures — matching set!” … ban movies, DVDs, books that relate to candidates (if only one line in a 500-page history of the Progressive Movement is currently political, the Solicitor General told Justice Roberts) … enable local operatives to leverage campaign contributions 6-1 in taxpayer dollars, which can then be paid right back to them personally … etc., etc.

    Nobody has come up with an answer to that challenge yet, as we’ve seen real, enacted campaign finance “reform” laws do all these things, and a whole lot more.

    THAT’s the problem. Not the price.

    If you come up with an answer to that challenge, I might support your proposal.

  27. comment number 27 by: B Davis

    Jim Glass wrote:

    Not only have incumbents won 96.3% of Congressional elections when they’ve run over the last decade, but they also do more than >90% of campaign spending. (E.g., 92.8% in the 2000 cycle).

    That’s entirely logical — over 96% of incumbents win, 90% have no serious challenge — who’s going to waste money by giving it to sure losers?

    In fact, that just seems like another reason for public financing. Under most public financing proposals, I believe that the candidates of the two major parties both receive the same financing. That would seem a more likely system to put out some of those incumbents than the current one in which we are expecting contributors to “waste money by giving it to sure losers”.

    When incumbents win over 96% of the time spending over 90% of the money, does it really look like their “survival is threatened” by competitions forcing them to collect all that money — lest they be exterminated by their non-financed, often totally non-existent challengers?

    From the data that I looked at for 1988 to 1996 (admittedly old data), there does appear to usually be a challenger. In any event, there could be numerous reasons why they still raise the money. To raise absolutely no money or too little to provide basic services to voters on election day might seem arrogant or uncaring. In addition, I don’t know all of the legal ways by which those contributions can be used to fund other things (such as party activities). They may be used in shady ways such as running expensive ads which may be seen as unnecessary for the House candidate but may be seen as having a positive effect for the party on other federal campaigns. Or, as you suggested, they may be used in outright illegal ways. None of these seem like an argument for the current system. They once again sound like a reason for public financing.

    Regarding the “survival is threatened” quote, I stated the following in my prior message:

    Hence, to be a politician, you must raise money. That is what I mean by “political survival”.

    [and] we could remove that pressure through public financing at such a relatively cheap price.
    … well, the thing is, the issue isn’t the “price”. Nobody says the issue is price, not even George Will. The issue is the probable result.

    The cheap price is just a bonus. The key thing is to remove unnecessary pressures on our politicians.

    Here’s a challenge: When coming up with a new campaign finance law, what rules would you make legislators follow to make sure they don’t simply grab more power to protect themselves, by stretching their power to the ability to, say:

    … ban labor unions from writing campaign biographies to be published by Random House … ban retailers from selling non-partisan “Obama-McCain Action Figures — matching set!” … ban movies, DVDs, books that relate to candidates (if only one line in a 500-page history of the Progressive Movement is currently political, the Solicitor General told Justice Roberts) … enable local operatives to leverage campaign contributions 6-1 in taxpayer dollars, which can then be paid right back to them personally … etc., etc.

    Nobody has come up with an answer to that challenge yet, as we’ve seen real, enacted campaign finance “reform” laws do all these things, and a whole lot more.

    Didn’t the Supreme Court just, in effect, do that? In any event, I’m sure that you’re not suggesting that we should never prompt Congress to pass a law in fear that they might hang a bad law onto it. However, I will agree that there are many areas that need reform. The one that you keep bringing up - gerry-mandering - could likely be addressed by a computer model whose basic rules could be understood by most people. However, like with public financing, the current incumbents are not likely to support it. It will require the backing of some respected public officials from both parties and an argument that can be understood by the public. Letting the incumbents to freeze us into inaction by the perceived threat that they might pass a bad law is just letting them win.