Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The $32 Million Question - Take Two

Yesterday in this space I delivered a heartfelt rant about the amount of money raised and spent on political campaigns. If you read it, you know that the article which sparked the post really raised my hackles.

Well, I raised some hackles of my own. My old friend and former co-worker Andy sent me an e-mail last night with his comments, which took issue with my position. Of course, I had to answer him. I suspect the debate will go on, as neither of us appears to have convinced the other of his righteousness. Here's the exchange between us ... I don't think Andy will object (and it will help keep me from having to develop something new for today) ...

Here's what Andy said (the italics are his own):

"I have to disagree with Bilbo on the thirty million dollar question.

"First, your complaint confuses their money with our money by wrongly equating coercively collected taxes with voluntarily contributed funds. That's comparable to saying charitable contributions (which also reflect individuals’ political preferences) should instead be coercively collected by the government. With the exception of the unwise and probably unconstitutional Presidential campaign fund (see recent USSC ruling on Arizona’s public finance law), campaign contributions are not the nation's money any more than the change in your car ashtray.

"Second, you seem to overestimate what the nation could do with that amount of money. In reality, it's not much. For example, it’s about $5.33 for each of the 6.2 million K-12 teachers, according to the 2000 census, or $2.83 for each of the 11.4 million employees in the broader “educational services” bucket in 2010 census. Your grandchildren wouldn't benefit much from that level additional government spending.

"Third, the campaign spending is a $32 million private sector-funded stimulus. And, more than likely, the vast majority of funds raised at this point are from the super (if not to say over-) wealthy and the big industries and evil unions. Hell yes, milk those fat cats. Perhaps some jobs will emerge from this stimulus. And it's a pretty cheap stimulus: Thirty-two million dollars is less than 11cents/person – it’s not even our money.

"I should hardly need to say this, but: Fourth, this private spending is the expression of various first Amendment rights to speech and assembly. (My concern is that parties pay for the services, including use of government-funded equipment such as voting machines and school gymnasiums, for their activities such as primaries. They have a right to assemble, but we as a nation have a right to "just compensation" for use of GFE [Government-Furnished Equipment]).

"The phone-hacking scandal in the UK has revealed the extent to which British political parties are in-bed with the press, a cozy, incestuous relationship nurtured by the UK's strict campaigning rules that limit private individuals' and parties' ability to campaign. This creates a political speech vacuum that the media easily dominates. With limited independent ability to make their case to their constituents, politicians needed a pliant media, and so became pliant to the media. Access peddling goes both ways. And that's the reason most media outlets in the US love public campaign financing and travesties like McCain-Feingold. It's comparable to economic rent-seeking. For sooth, a pox upon both of their houses."

Here was my response:


"First, I never equated - or intended to equate - "coercively collected" taxes with "voluntarily contributed funds" (leaving aside for a moment the fact that many of those "voluntarily collected funds" are contributed by unions who don't always take the wishes of their memberships into account when bankrolling candidates of any particular party). My point is simply that the money - regardless of source - could be spent for much worthier causes.

"Second, I've worked in the government long enough to understand that $32 million is pretty much decimal dust, although to a person struggling with a mortgage, medical bills, and multiple low-paying jobs it's quite a fortune. The point isn't the amount as much as the use to which it's being put.

"Third, you can consider this a "private sector-funded stimulus" if you like. I'm sure that there will be some jobs created - temporarily - for sign makers, vocal artists to record mass-dialed phone messages, and hookers to service all the people who flock to the conventions. And it's interesting to me that the "super wealthy and big industries and evil unions" are more willing to spend millions to elect the most advantageous candidate than to pay an equivalent amount in taxes to support the government services on which they - as much as you or I - rely. After all, somebody has to pay for all those agricultural subsidies and tax breaks for businesses.

"And finally, yes, you can interpret private spending on political campaigns as an "expression of various first amendment rights to speech." I personally think that's a stretch in many cases. At what point does Bilbo donating $50 to his congressman's reelection campaign equal the impact of a corporate lobbyist donating $250,000 to that same congressman? Whose voice do you think is more likely to be heard ... whose speech is more free, if I can ask the question that way? When vast amounts of corporate money flood into particular campaigns, does their free speech outweigh mine? It sure looks that way to me.

"You and I are never going to agree on this. All your points are valid, but they all miss the point: that all this money could be better spent, and that the ability of special interests to - quite literally - buy elections makes a mockery of the democratic ideal of free speech and the empowerment of the individual voter.

"Maybe you can look at all this and rationalize it. Me, I'm just completely disgusted and - for the first time in my life - truly ashamed of my country."

Okay, that was the exchange between Andy and I. He's one of the smartest guys I know, and I always enjoy arguing debating with him, even when I think he's as wrong as he thinks I am. You know where I stand on all this, but what do you think? Is McCain-Feingold a "travesty?" How about the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision? Do you think your voice is being heard?

And what would you spend $32 million on?

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



John said...

"... and hookers to service all the people who flock to the conventions."

Now that's what I call a stimulus package!

From a bumper sticker: We don't have elections; We have auctions!

allenwoodhaven said...

I think you both make valid points; Andy's are more theoretical and yours are more practical. I, personally, am more of a practical guy. Theories are important to figure out how things should be but practice shows how they actually are.

A case in point is the Citizens United case. Perhaps corporations should be able to spend as they wish on political speech, but the practical application means that their monetary resources drown out those of almost every citizen. Does this actually help or hurt democracy? I think it is obvious that it hurts it.

A favorite quote of mine: in theory there is no difference between theory and practice but in practice there is.

What would I spend 32 million on? That's a tough choice but it could help to pay for mental health care which is woefully underfunded. I know because I have worked in the field for over 25 years.

Mike said...

"coercively collected taxes"

It's not a tax issue. Everyone knows we need taxes to pay for the government. It's a fairness issue for the middle and lower class and a greed issue for the upper.... money class and their middle class groupies.