Monday, April 09, 2007

Lawmakers Aren't Snack Foods

We were disappointed to read the New York Post’s dismissive response to the dismay many have expressed at the obscene amounts collected by presidential candidates in the first fundraising quarter. They write, “But so what? Americans spent more than $61 billion on snack foods in 2005. What's more important - electing a president or another round of Twinkies?”

The point is that it’s perfectly proper for Twinkies to be for sale, but our lawmakers shouldn’t be.

We shouldn’t sit back and wait for our politicians to become corrupt, as the Post seems to imply with its admonition that "the way to deal with corruption of that sort is to indict, try and incarcerate corrupt politicians." We agree that detailed campaign finance disclosure and rigorous enforcement are essential to a properly functioning system, but we take issue with the idea that they are the only legitimate means of discouraging the improper influence of money over politicians. That’s like saying that doctors should only screen for cancer, not encourage patients to take steps to prevent it.

The Post's position also assumes that all questionable practices will come to light with detailed disclosure. Unfortunately, undue access, which doesn't show up on disclosure reports, can be as corrosive as outright corruption.

What we really need, on top of disclosure and enforcement, is a system of public financing that will restore voters' confidence in the integrity of government. Public financing frees candidates from spending all of their time dialing-for-dollars, allowing them to interact with voters and giving viable candidates with no connections to big donors a real shot at election. Most importantly, it lets lawmakers respond to the full spectrum of voters, not just those with the most Twinkies.

1 comment:

Chris Paige said...

Whatever else may be wrong with public financing of political campaigns, there are 2 insurmountable practical problems: 1. Whom do we include?, and 2. How much do we give them?

Let's consider the first problem first. Giving public money to candidates is not as easy as it sounds. Should Neo-Nazis be eligible for public financing? If we say yes, then I think most of us would object to seeing our tax dollars go to financing Neo-Nazi campaigns. If we say no, then who will decide which political views are unacceptable and what criteria will that person use?

Now, let's consider the second problem. It's not obvious to me that public financing will provide candidates with sufficient funds to run meaningful campaigns. Incumbents have access to extraordinary non-campaign resources their rivals cannot match. For example, it's just much easier to persuade the press to attend an incumbent's press conference to announce a new policy initiative or achievement than it is to persuade the press to attend a mere candidate's press conference. The former is news; the latter is politics. Consequently, incumbents will gain a significant competitive advantage by underfunding their rivals' campaigns; that is, they would love to fight the campaign on non-campaign resources because they will always have more of them!

More generally, we've been experimenting with campaign finance reform for 30 years now, and what we've seen is higher and higher re-election rates for incumbents and more and more nepotism in politics. Of course, any economist would have predicted this because regulations disproportionately impact new entrants, who lack the resources to overcome the costs of these regulations.