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May 14, 2008


The US political system has been completely broken my whole life. And for my whole life, nice liberals have been telling me the reason is that there's too much money in politics. We need campaign finance reform to get the money out of politics, and all will be well.

I'm now convinced this is completely wrong. The problem isn't that there's much too much money in politics. It that there's much too little.

Politics costs money. It always has and always will. Moreover, the money spent on elections may be the least important part. There's also media, long-term party building, organizations outside of parties like MoveOn and the NRA, and "Impeach LBJ" buttons. Even if running for office cost nothing, progressives would still be at a profound disadvantage, because officeholders would be operating in an environment created by Big Money.

So what's the answer? I'm convinced it's for lots and lots of people to give little amounts of money—not just to candidates, but to the whole machinery of politics.

Getting people to do that, of course, is the trick. But there's a plausible solution. In William Greider's book Who Will Tell the People, he suggests every US adult should get a government voucher for a certain amount of money—say, $100—that they would be free to give to any political organization they want. This could be Mike Huckabee, or the ACLU, or a local soup kitchen, or even teeny-tiny websites named after something George Orwell said.

To put this in perspective, the 2008 presidential campaign will cost over $1 billion. That sounds like too much money in politics! But if all of America's 200 million adults allocated their $100, that would be $20 billion spent on politics every year (not just every four). From that perspective, $1 billion sounds like much too little.

I'd welcome thoughts on this, because I'm going to write a big piece soon about why this is important and how it might work. In the meantime, here's an interesting paragraph from a new piece in the Atlantic about Barack Obama's fearsome fundraising machinery:

In a sense, Obama represents a triumph of campaign-finance reform. He has not, of course, gotten the money out of politics, as many proponents of reform may have wished, and he will likely forgo public financing if he becomes the nominee. But he has realized the reformers’ other big goal of ending the system whereby a handful of rich donors control the political process. He has done this not by limiting money but by adding much, much more of it—democratizing the system by flooding it with so many new contributors that their combined effect dilutes the old guard to the point that it scarcely poses any threat. Goren berg says he’s still often asked who the biggest fund-raisers are. He replies that it is no longer possible to tell. “Any one of them could wind up being huge,” he says, “because it no longer matters how big a check you can write; it matters how motivated you are to reach out to others.”

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at May 14, 2008 04:54 PM

“Obama represents a triumph of campaign-finance reform.” ???

The following by Pam Martens at Counterpunch.

The number one industry supporting the Obama presidential bid, by the start of February, -- the crucial time in primary season -- according to the widely respected, nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, was “lawyers/law firms” (most on Wall Street’s payroll), giving a total of $11,246,596.

This presents three unique credibility problems for the yes-we-can-little-choo-choo-that-could campaign: (1) these are not just “lawyers/law firms”; the vast majority of these firms are also registered lobbyists at the Federal level; (2) Senator Obama has made it a core tenet of his campaign platform that the way he is gong to bring the country hope and change is not taking money from federal lobbyists; and (3) with the past seven ignoble years of lies and distortions fresh in the minds of voters, building a candidacy based on half-truths is not a sustainable strategy to secure the west wing from the right wing.

Yes, the other leading presidential candidates are taking money from lawyers/law firms/lobbyists, but Senator Obama is the only one rallying with the populist cry that he isn’t. That makes it not only a legitimate but a necessary line of inquiry.

Everyone giving little bit of money to finance campaigns isn’t a bad idea. However when people say there is too much money in politics I take that to mean that there is too much money coming from corporate America rather than too much money being spent though I suppose that could be my own mistaken interpretation. Is the problem the system or is it the people who make up the system? I would say it was both which makes reform a monumental task considering it is the people who are part of the problem who would be doing the reforming. So even if people come up with good ideas on campaign reform how will it be implemented? How will you get 200 million adults even interested when less than half typically vote in presidential elections?

Why vouchers? Why not propose that monies from tax revenues be set aside to pay for the campaigns for every candidate, not just the ones the news media and corporate America deem acceptable and completely eliminate donations from any individual or groups of individuals? I’m not being sarcastic, just asking.

Posted by: Rob Payne at May 14, 2008 06:29 PM

I agree with Rob. I think.

The root cause of the disease is, I think, the reciprocity embedded in any exchange of money. I give you $X if you'll do Y for me. So you end up with individuals giving money to anyone who'll let them sleep in the Lincoln bedroom, or to anyone who'll pass a law that allows them to pollute a community, or to deny their employees insurance.

You've got make money change hands without reciprocity.

Anonymous donations might be a solution, but it's hard to implement. "Even though you don't know it, I am the one who gave a gazillion bucks to your PAC."

I think we should give all DOD money to the FEC
and run the Pentagon on donations. If Limbaugh really wants to invade Micronesia he has to cough up the dough.

Also, I think TV ads should be standardized by law. Every candidate stands alone in Charlie Rose's studio, without Charlie Rose, and tells us why we should vote for them. The very notion that they have to add "And I approve this message" shows the full crapitude of the system.
What it really means is "Even though what you just heard is a complete fraud and what you saw is a bunch of pretty clowns trying to sell you political toothpaste, hey, that's how it works so get with it."

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 14, 2008 07:23 PM

>> all of America's 200 million adults

No comment. The joke writes itself.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at May 14, 2008 07:24 PM

THE MONEY is more desparately needed financing war crimes and war criminals. (One can only afford to pay for so much fun)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 14, 2008 07:54 PM

Wouldn't you have the party bosses bullying the Average Uneducated American into supporting organizations like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and all the same conservative organizations that currently suck in money? This premise seems to rest on the idea that people will use this as an opportunity to become more educated about their social environment, rather than making it another decision that they leave up to "people who know about this sort of thing more than I do."

Posted by: Gordon at May 14, 2008 08:37 PM

If money is outlawed, only outlaws will have money. Or something like that.

How 'bout if all donations went into a blind pool to be allocated randomly?

Or, how 'bout if anybody with a net worth of $1million or more was strictly forbidden to donate money to a campaign, 527, whatever...

Just trying to think "outside the...." Ugh. Can't finish.

Posted by: bobbyp at May 14, 2008 09:51 PM

Rob and Bernard have it - the problem isn't that there's too much or too little money in elections, it's that you have cashed-up non-humans deeply involved in your political system. But getting the non-humans out of the politician buying business is an intractable problem in the States because of

a) the bizarre longstanding Supreme Court fiction that corporations are people, giving them equal protection under the 14th Amendment

b) the considerably less dubious but debatable finding that the freedom to donate money to political causes is a subset of free speech, therefore protected by the 1st Amendment

c) devolved responsibility for corporate law.

The last is a huge obstacle, as otherwise you could probably get around the Bill of Rights issues raised by outright bans on corporate donations by, say, requiring all such donations be approved by unanimous vote of shareholders. But for that to work under present circumstances you would need appropriate legal changes in all 50 separate jurisdictions, and those sods in Delaware would probably hold out.

Posted by: RobWeaver at May 14, 2008 10:27 PM

there's a supply side and a demand side. the problem, i think, is that there is a demand for money. i now live somewhere that doesn't have a mail system, so no one does direct mail. and political tv ads are mostly illegal, so there are few of those. and tv coverage is regulated to ensure balance. (this last doesn't work, because the incumbents don't really want balance.) that $2 billion basically flows through the politicians as conduits from those law firms and well meaning citizens like you to the pockets of the local tv stations and direct mail houses. it's pretty awful. while money will always have power, if you can make it possible to win without money the bribers will have a lot less leverage.

Posted by: hedgehog at May 14, 2008 11:21 PM

Dear JS,
One way to reduce the implicit bribery of our system is to require the leasers of the publicly owned airwaves to give free airtime to all candidates. It should be made part of the leasing requirements for TV and radio: you have a license to broadcast contingent upon airing free ads for all politacal parties which pulled in more than (say, 5%) of the popular vote.

This doesn't "get money out of politics", but it would chip away at the quid-pro-quo aspect.

Best regards,


Posted by: kj at May 15, 2008 07:20 AM

$100!! What's that, one trip through the the checkout at Big Wally? Why GIVE politicians anything? Money, airtime? The bastards and bastardesses will just use it to LIE TO US and use the money to live high on the hog while doing it, 5 star high on the hog. Why LEGALLY bribe them too? Politicians are WELL able to get their own damn money. (people throw it at them in the hopes of undeserved favors after election)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 15, 2008 10:57 AM

I don't know about the US, but in Canada small donations to political parties are 75% tax-deductible. Even with that much subsidy, almost no one donates. I'm not sure a 100% subsidy would make much difference.

Posted by: Baron Marius at May 15, 2008 11:37 AM

I'm skeptical that the mass infusion of public money would obviate the attractiveness of corporate funding--money is money is money, and you take as much as you can get. But the central difficulty it seems to me is that the scheme does not foster the sort of leverage that traditional campaign financing does. Some 20 billion dollars would suddenly be available, but there would be no--there could be no--strings attached. The giving would reflect no discernable political point, and politicians would be quite justified in taking the money and running, so to speak. After all, what precisely would they be beholden too? The "public interest"?

The ultimate result of the scheme would be the enriching of the political parties: people would tend to give to the political agents best known to them and (seemingly) most viable. But the parties themselves would not change--they'd have no reason to change--and so your infusion of money would only result in their improved capacities to lie, cheat and destroy.

The solution is the one you've posed before, a few times: THE RING MUST BE DESTROYED!

Posted by: Mark at May 15, 2008 11:51 AM

Good post, and a nice example of why I admire Obama and hope like hell he's for real. Too many of us progressives sit around and wish the broken system were fixed, and grumble about the imperfect solutions and compromises that politicians enact.

Obama found a way to make the system work differently -- not perfectly, but better. Paul Wellstone did the same thing -- focusing on getting lots of people invested in him with small donations instead of one person who gives a $2000 donation. It's more expensive, but in the current system, it's the only way for an elected official to build up some political cover or insulation down the line if he/she bucks moneyed interests.

Speaking of which, if you think of it, throw a few bucks at the organization that has carried on Wellstone's legacy, or sign up for a training near you:

Posted by: Whistler Blue at May 15, 2008 01:23 PM

News media is now owned by a small number of very large corporations. In this race they've had an obvious ability to sway the course of events, by, say, harping on the Rev. Wright and flag-lapel pins. While it's possible that massive donations from the public could overwhelm the reach and influence of news media, it seems a difficult prospect (although maybe direct mailing could do this). This is different from corporations directly buying the influence of politicians, but they're still guarding the gates and only letting those through who will protect their interests.

Posted by: saurabh at May 15, 2008 01:48 PM

If I were to send $100.00 in cash a thousand times by mail to a candidate is there any mechanism to track it as a $100000.00 donation?

Posted by: shar at May 15, 2008 02:00 PM

I like this idea very much. I've wondered for some time whether just buying votes in Congress would be better than the current system. For instance - would you have spent $50 at the time to ensure that the Patriot Act not pass? Could you have found 100,000 other people willing to put up that cash? That $5mm could have changed the outcome.

This points up what Jon says: there's not enough money in the system. The remarkable thing is not how routinely the commonweal is sold out, it's really how little money it is sold for. Lobbying expenses look like real money, but are not at all in comparison to what is purchased.

There's organized people, and there's organized money. Those are the two routes to power, there aren't any others. It's the nature of the dismal science that there's more people than money. So blending the two to me seems like a promising route to a functioning democracy.

I think earlier posters overlook two very basic, and very important points.

1) Shopping (which is what this $100 per person is) is not like voting. This is true even on a very basic, psychological level. You could even discuss it in chemical terms at the cellular level, if you're a nerd. Personally, I feel some esteem when I write a check to Consortium News or Z Magazine. I don't get this when I vote, because I know I won't get what I want my vote to signify. You can get people who won't vote to shop. This is America.

2) There are totally new and new sorts of institutions which could be built if there were a funding pot of $20bn annually to support them. If you can't think of something useful to do with $20bn, you're not thinking very hard.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at May 15, 2008 02:10 PM

Too much populism (that this scheme will undoubtedly create) could be a bad thing. Still, probably better than the current scheme.

Posted by: abb1 at May 15, 2008 03:08 PM

Aaron, I think you've hit on something regarding "shopping." The priorities of our society are very clear when you juxtapose how easy it is to raise hell (and more importantly, get satisfaction) after you've bought something crappy, with how hard it is to do the same with ANY aspect of our political process.

To use the obvious example, W is a poorly designed, fraudulently marketed product that broke soon after we "bought" it. (In fact, our receipt says we bought the other guy, but anyway...) We've been trying to return him ever since, with no luck. Could it be any clearer that our purchasing power, and not our voting power, is a much more promising lever for change?

Posted by: Mike of Angle at May 15, 2008 03:17 PM

I disagree with Aaron's shopping analogy. Whether you vote or "shop" (i.e., send in donations), the product is the same. In fact, shopping is an even LESS reliable way of getting the product you want, since all you're shopping for is the likelihood that voting will go your way.

There is a way to get the product you want - good advertising and some clear fucking information written on the side of th box. There's a reason people can't sell cough syrup loaded with strychnine and mercury; there should be a similar mechanism for politics. Right now we rely on the national media and our own best efforts to serve as this mechanism, but I think that's where the failing lies - not in the selection mechanism.

Posted by: saurabh at May 15, 2008 03:26 PM

Gorenberd says that it's no longer possible to tell who the biggest contributors are?

I hope to hell you don't actually believe that.

Of course they know who the biggest contributors are because the biggest contributors have specific expectations of return, and they make those expectations known in private meetings with the candidate that the small-money donars never receive.

This really is a horrible idea. More unaccountable money into the system? Like that's going to work.

The only way to make it work is 100% mandatory public financing, along with mandatory, equal air time on television and radio.

The only way to make it work our system work is to get rid of legal bribery altogether.

Do this, and you get the added bonus of eliminating all political parties, since their only purpose is to raise and spend money.

Posted by: Jeff at May 15, 2008 04:16 PM

Note that the proposal isn't to spend $20B on the crappy two party system we currently have. Think about what you could put in the basket for your $100! I have some extra cash now, and I spend it on Robert Parry and Znet. But my wife works for The Man, and I have $100. This is about new institutions and new involvement.

I actually do believe that shopping is the appropriate reference frame to use to think about this. Buying stuff is pleasurable on a biochemical level, which is why there is such a beast as a shopping addict. People will "shop" who will not vote in the current system, and in my opinion the change would be profound.

(This is why I'm also in favor of a law which makes you ineligible for a tax refund unless you voted that year. My wife thinks this is crazy, but I discovered that someplace else does something like it - voting is mandatory in Costa Rica. Those crazy foreigners!)

It's also interesting to consider the effect this would have when people who don't agree with us begin to "shop". My opinion is that a program like this might begin to fracture the wedge issue hold that the corporate elite maintains over a huge number of poor, but culturally conservative, voters. This would happen because the two party system would begin to fracture as well.

Unfortunately, I think this because I believe that the political situation is analogous to a frustrated spin magnet, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense, I admit. This is an occupational hazard of working with scientists. However, consider:

1) Are there 500,000 people who would donate $100 to the Green Party? You could make a real Green Party run for the governor of California with that kind of money.

2) What could The Real News do with Real Money?

3) What happens when the fundamentalist anti-abortion crusaders start opening up Mom-n-Pop pro-life lobbying shops? I bet a lot of them are tired of the Republican Party giving tax breaks to corporations while ignoring the fetal Holocaust going on every day. In some respects I think the fissures in the Republican Party are thornier than the well-discussed differences on the liberal side, and could open wide if the top-down control they currently exercise began to crack.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at May 15, 2008 06:49 PM

"...he[i.e. Obama] has realized the reformers’ other big goal of ending the system whereby a handful of rich donors control the political process. He has done this not by limiting money but by adding much, much more of it—democratizing the system by flooding it with so many new contributors that their combined effect dilutes the old guard to the point that it scarcely poses any threat."

read that again, Jonathan Schwarz. If this were so, how come Obama, with all his populist money, is still essentially an ADM/AIPAC/Boeing/Lockheed/Walmart/Bank-of-America kinda candidate?

Vouchers would still go to corporatist candidates, by and large. The mechanism is a little like asking taxpayers to absorb the cost of building a swanky new stadium for an NFL team.*

Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.

I feel bad being a wet blanket, because you've always struck me as an earnest guy and a good joe, and it sounds as if you're emotionally invested in this idea.

But it won't effing work.

(*of course, it would be nice if our politicians would threaten to move their franchise to another country, and then followed through. well, nice for us...)

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at May 15, 2008 07:09 PM

Candidates should get 300 federal dollars to paint posters and bake cupcakes. So long as this process is treated like a high school student body popularity contest, it should be treated that way right down the line.

Oh, and reinstate the 'Fairness Doctrine'.

Posted by: AdmNaismith at May 15, 2008 07:21 PM

Every vibrant democracy I know of (possibly excepting Canada, I don't know) has a much simpler solution to this.

Limit the LENGTH of the campaign. Six weeks from start of the season to actual voting day. Works in democracies around the globe including the gigantic ones like India.

No more of this two years plus stuff for President of the USA.

Then people and corporations can spend what they want.

Alternative suggestion: do like they do in Australia and make it MANDATORY for all citizens to vote. And yes that includes the felons ;)

Posted by: Soj at May 16, 2008 12:14 AM

@ Jonathan Versen -

Can I disagree with you? Is that allowed? I think you're VERY WRONG that most "vouchers" will go to corporatist candidates.

It's possible that most "vouchers" from people in the top 10% will go to corporatist candidates. But the plurality of registered voters who DON'T VOTE? Do you really think that those non-voters will give their money to the Rs and Ds?

My feeling: the other $18bn will go elsewhere, very often to local politics of two varieties - politicians at the level of alderman etc., and grassroots stuff like playgrounds and soup kitchens. There's a real potential in this idea for a reinvigoration of civic culture. Don't mistake politics for "politics", the crap they write about in the NYT.

Disclosure: I'm a Stutts grad and my wife's a management consultant, so I'm an aspiring 1%-er. People in my social class don't get this idea, because we already can give $100 if we choose to and the system is already responsive to our everyday needs as we choose to identify them. (If not to the larger stop-the-war needs that we can safely ignore 'cuz they are not really in our face every day.)

But there are 270m or so people in this country not in my class, and for that reason this idea has revolutionary potential. No bullshit.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at May 16, 2008 12:25 PM

Ignore the quotes around "vouchers", please. I dislike the word and forgot that Jon (no, the other Jon) used it in his post. My apologies. I wasn't trying to be sarcastic.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at May 16, 2008 12:57 PM

Yeah, Aaron, "right."

Posted by: Mike of Angle at May 16, 2008 03:53 PM

Aaron, do you think it's possible that in this hypothetical $100-system the corporate money will be used to propagandize ordinary people to send their $100 to the corporate-sponsored candidates and organizations? Same shit, slightly different tactic.

Posted by: abb1 at May 16, 2008 04:28 PM

@abb1 - Of course it would eventually be co-opted by the system. EVERY change one could possibly consider will eventually be twisted to favor the interests of the powerful. Politics is a process, not an end state.

That's not an argument against making the change. It's a reminder to keep fighting for more once you've made it. Molly Ivins made exactly that point about John Kerry and about campaign finance reform in 2004.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at May 16, 2008 04:46 PM

Aaron Datesman-

look at all the millions of fools who think the democrats will really end the war and who think the democratic leadership, the democrats that are higher up the food chain, really care about them.

"Yes we can." Oh, please.

Look at all the fools, on the left AND on the right, who think Nancy "impeachment is off the table" Pelosi is a liberal(?!@#!!)

Look at all the millions of voters who want to end the war but were afraid to "waste their vote" for a real antiwar candidate like Kucinich or Gravel or Paul wouldn't suddenly say, "hey, now that we control where many millions of dollars of public donations go, we can send it to geniunely pro-peace, pro-ordinary-guy candidates."

No-- instead the internal calculus of rationalization would shift from fearing "wasting their votes" to "wasting their vouchers".


Posted by: Jonathan Versen at May 16, 2008 08:02 PM

I'd put the hundred in my pocket and vote for Michael Meyer. (maybe get a beer)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 16, 2008 09:33 PM

Too late.

We've done this in Minnesota for years.

Ok, so it's not quite the same.

We can donate to $100 to any politician. We always donate to our state representative, a great politician.

It's out money, but we get it back when we pay our taxes. I don't know if it generates a refund for people who don't pay taxes.

The process is very simple, and is somewhat close to your proposal.

Posted by: John Faughnan at May 17, 2008 12:47 AM

That's not an argument against making the change.

You have a point here, though I think if one can easily see how the proposed system can be coopted, that is a bit of an argument. But maybe I'm wrong and it can't be easily coopted; what do I know.

Posted by: abb1 at May 17, 2008 03:35 AM

Beg to differ , I think its the other way around ------ there's too much "politics in money" ----- these corrupt bastards (and their slimeball corporate buddies) get richer every day at 'our' expense (often at the expense of life and limb -- i.e; Iraq) ------

Government "IS" 'organized crime'.

Posted by: DMcD at May 17, 2008 06:38 PM

Well, most of the funding now is going toward faux-populist smart-but-evil political organizations.

I suspect that this proposal would tend to shift the balance in the direction of *real* populist *dumb*-but-evil political organizations.

There's a huge bloc of political know-nothings who'll just contribute however their leaders say, whereas the better educated and more thoughtful will still tend to divide up their contributions among local soup kitchens, tiny websites named after something George Orwell said, One World Government, Mars-colonization projects, let's-legalize-LSD, save-the-pandas, etc, etc. (Any of which may actually be a Good Thing, but as I say, will be dividing up the right-side-of-the-bell-curve funding.)

The Campaign to Elect Joe "I Promise Dollar-a-Gallon Gasoline by Nuking the Ay-rabs Because Jesus Says So" is going to come out way ahead.

Posted by: anon at May 18, 2008 06:10 PM