it’s not crazy to think that money in politics is a problem

Usual disclaimer: I’m not speaking for my employer.

Matt wrote a post keying off of Dylan Ratigan’s proposal to outlaw money in politics. He doesn’t see the point of it:

Like let’s say you’re Elizabeth Warren and you want to run a campaign against Scott Brown. How do you pay your campaign manager? How do you let people know that you’re running? To me, this doesn’t solve the problem that when Washington regulates the financial system, it’s dependent for expertise on people with ties to the financial industry. It doesn’t solve the problem of the revolving door. It doesn’t solve the problem that politicians need the “legislative subsidy” of lobbyists to do policy analysis. Nor does it solve the problem of monied interests exercising disproportionate influence over think tanks, advocacy groups, or even (through speaking fees and the like) journalists and pundits. Presumably the people who make the F-22 will still be allowed to advertise about how high levels of defense spending are awesome, just as ExxonMobile will still be allowed to advertise about how fossil fuel extraction is the road to prosperity. You’ll have created some big new logistical hassles for political campaigns without, I think, addressing any concrete issues.

I don’t watch Ratigan’s show, so I don’t know for sure, but I would be surprised if he was pitching this proposal as a way to end lobbying as a legislative subsidy, much less as a means to address the revolving door problem. And of course there won’t ever be a silver bullet that makes money completely irrelevant to the political process.

But, contra Matt, I think it’s easy enough to see Ratigan’s motivation. In the absence of contributions, campaigns would have to deprofessionalize and rely to an even greater degree on motivated volunteers. An optimist would say that this might produce less homogenous candidates and campaigns, but you could easily make the case that it would just entrench the electoral power of crazy old people.

On the legislative subsidy front, well-funded lobbying campaigns would no doubt still yield results. But it’s not crazy to think the situation would be improved if corporate lobbyists were competing for legislators’ attention with public interest NGOs on a level playing field. Matt says that “it’s too difficult for elected officials to get expert technical opinion on issues without relying on interested parties,” but outside of the government itself I’d say that avoiding interested parties when seeking advice is pretty much a non-starter.

I think the most compelling argument for defunding elections is that it might select for a different class of politician. I’ve read estimates from retired congressmen that put the share of their time spent fundraising in the 30% range. That’s insane. To endure the rigors of constantly begging wealthy supporters for large sums of money — to say nothing of excelling at it — must require a very strange set of skills. I suspect that those skills don’t relate much to aptitude for governing. And I suspect that that time investment comes at the expense of other duties. I’m not naive enough to think we’d have a wave election that stuffed Capitol Hill with policy experts. But perhaps we’d get a few, along with some better orators, coalition-builders, horse-traders and glad-handers.

To be clear, it’s obvious that Ratigan’s proposal is mostly about making good TV (a nobler motivation than most proposals to amend the Constitution). And I don’t want to pretend that it wouldn’t carry substantial problems. Offhand, it seems very likely that, short of explicit restrictions on political speech, this policy would just formalize the de facto requirement that candidates be personally wealthy; celebrity candidates would be massively empowered by their name recognition; the press’s political coverage pathologies would become all the more problematic as their role in conveying campaign messages increased in importance; turnout might drop, leaving an electorate that behaves more like primary voters, selecting for politicians with more extreme views; and the whole thing would be an enforcement nightmare.

Still. It’s hard to escape the sense that federal politicians have become so professionalized — so good at the game they play, so aware that the incentives they face have little to do with the quality of governance they deliver — that we’re all beginning to suffer for it. I’m not sure there’s a solution to this problem short of a societal collapse and reboot, but it’s easy to see why an optimist reach for a different answer.

One Response to “it’s not crazy to think that money in politics is a problem”

  1. ceilings and floors « Manifest Density

    [...] posting an inexplicable amount, let me just say that I appreciate Matt’s response to my post about Dylan Ratigan’s proposed ban on money in elections. In principle I agree that public [...]

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