On the need for political finance reform…

I wanted to highlight a TED-Talk given recently by Lawrence Lessig, which Mad Rocket Scientist forwarded to me this afternoon.

Many of you probably know Lessig from his work with technology use and copyright reform, but here he tackles the need for overhauling our political financing system.  Along the way he makes a compelling case for how, under the current system, the federally elected officials who run our country are really chosen by a few hundred people to act in those people’s interests.  He makes a similarly compelling argument that no matter where your political passions lie – be they fiscal conservatism, human rights, environmentalism, or anything else – they cannot be achieved until real and substantial political finance reforms are made.

There isn’t much here that will be new to anyone that regularly reads the League, but it might be the best and most persuasive distillation I have seen on the subject.

I know the natural instinct here at the League is to mock people who give TED-Talks, regardless of person, message or content, but I’d encourage everyone to watch it anyway.

The video is after the jump.

 

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62 thoughts on “On the need for political finance reform…

  1. I may be the only person here who likes TED talks. It’s like getting to go back to college for a class lecture.

    Anyway, what sort of reform did Lessig suggest? I am completely with the would-be reformers on the diagnosis, but have no idea on the treatment.

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  2. I like TED talks too, but if Mr. Lessig thinks the founding generation didn’t create the government framework they did *primarily* for their own elite interests, he’s stupider than his fashion choices.

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  3. The problem is that we really can’t reform campaign finance in our country without Amending the Constitution since a lot of political spending is protecting by the First Amendment according to the Supreme Court. Good luck with that.

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      • I don’t know how much it would help, though. There isn’t a baseline amount of money a candidate needs. They need more than the other guy. It’s all comparative. And that’s ignoring that more money in the system will make various aspects of campaigning more expensive.

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        • Yeah, flooding a campaign with public money going equally to both candidates would mean that achieving the important spending ratios would just cost more. It would also mean that non-viable candidates (a Tea Partier without a college degree running against Feinestein or Boxer) would get tons of free cash.

          The fundamental problem is that so much money is in politics because politicians got too involved in things that affect people’s pocket books, turning the legislature into a shake-down operation and a protection racket.

          Perhaps a rationalist re-design would see one elected legislative body responsible for criminal and civil law but not government finances (thus not attracting much money other than from concerned citizen types), an elected body responsible for government finances (where perhaps accountants, businessmen, and economists would be more common than lawyers), and one or more elected bodies responsible for most regulations (specialized fields where technical expertise would help gain votes). The latter body would be like what’s seen in many states where people run for positions like “Agriculture Commissioner” and many other posts.

          What this might accomplish is keeping the big-money spending focused on the body that’s handling taxes and budgets, while the races for other bodies are more like running for district attorney, housing inspector, and such.

          It also might make the legislatures a bit more responsive to the public because you might agree with a candidate’s positions on criminal and civil law but despise his position on taxes, etc. At present, with each legislator having a hand in every nook and cranny of federal responsibility, they wear too many hats.

          Perhaps looking at how various states divide up power and responsibility would provide some ideas, although most of them mostly copied the federal structure.

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          • Yet other countries with far more extensive public sectors where in theory, there’s even more pie to be passed out to cronies has less money per capita being spent on elections in those countries.

            It’s pretty damn simple on how to lessen (not completely remove, I note. I’m not asking for an idealistic fix, just a slightly better one) the pernicious effect of money in politics- lessen the availability of private money getting involved in elections. I mean, I get why you have to go through the complicated spiel of, “well, if we have one legislative portion of the government only doing x and y, but another doing z and l, we’ll be better off, etc.” because the obvious solution that has been successful in other countries is staring you in the face.

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  4. Along the way he makes a compelling case for how, under the current system, the federally elected officials who run our country are really chosen by a few hundred people to act in those people’s interests.

    Haven’t listened to the talk, but this is at best something of an overstatement. Like saying that Anthony Kennedy decides most Supreme Court cases. There are eight other judges, and their votes count just as much as his. It’s not that he actually gets to rule unilaterally—it’s that in controversial decisions, there are two fairly stable groups of four judges, and whichever group he sides with becomes the majority.

    Same deal with swing voters. They decide elections not because their votes count more, but because there are roughly equal numbers of consistent Democratic and Republican voters. If 60% of voters reliably voted for Democrats every time, then Republicans would never win an election, no matter how much the swing voters liked them. Swing voters matter only because most voters are divided into more or less equal coalitions.

    Maybe ads can sway 5-10% of swing voters one way or another and can decide the election that way. But they can’t actually cause the election of an unpopular candidate, because a candidate needs that other 40-45% of the vote in addition to the swing voters. They can only influence the choice between two candidates each deemed acceptable by a huge chunk of decided voters.

    And even that’s not as bad as it sounds. Have you seen political ads? Think about the kind of voter who’s actually influenced by them. Those aren’t the people we should want deciding our elections. How much of a problem is it, really, if these voters’ true preferences are obscured?

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  5. What I don’t understand is how Lessig’s proposed solution doesn’t just bump the problem up a level. If obtaining election funding requires popular support, then why wouldn’t politicians use their existing methods of obtaining popular support to get their funding? Basically, won’t candidates just find a way to campaign for popular funding, and use that funding to win the election? Be wary of early successes with a new electoral system, eventually the Powers That Be you are trying to dislodge will work out how to game the new system too, they may just need a couple of election cycles to figure it out.

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  6. Money is the most overrated factor in politics. In 2012 Superpacs spent tons of money on the presidential elections and it had to effect. Out of the 435 seats in Congress maybe 70 of them can swing between the two parties. Most senate seats are non-competative and the money has no effect.

    It seems that Mr. Lessing wants to regulate speech to increase the value of the speech that is control by people that he supports and to devalue the speech of people that he does not like.

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  7. I’m not able to view the video and I generally agree that financial reform should take place. Aside: I’m for 100% transparancy but I’m not for limiting contributions.

    I actually think that the most effective way to “manage” politicians is to micromanage them on their voting record. An interest group must seek commitments from them for certain things and punish them if they fail to live up. Gary North had an excellent summary, I can’t find at the moment.

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