Wednesday, February 15, 2017

“Money In Politics” Is a Massively Exaggerated Problem

My congressional representative, Aaron Schock of Illinois’s 18th district, left office in disgrace. What exactly did he do? Did he take home big laundry bags with dollar signs on them, filled to the brim with cash, in exchange for voting a certain way on a certain bill? Not really. He allowed an interior decorator to lavishly redecotrate his congressional offices. An unseemly indulgence, for sure, but if this was a “bribe” it’s not like he was taking it to the bank.

Do read the Wikipedia entry, particularly the “Use of funds and resignation” section. He did other stuff and most likely misused campaign funds. But this has little to do with “money in politics.” For one thing, once a donor gives a politician money, it’s hardly the donor’s fault if the politician misuses it. It would be unfair to accuse Schock’s donors of bribery because their money was spent unethically. For another thing, he was caught and it brought down his career. Now, there were also reports (not in the Wikipedia entry) that he has been overpaid for the sale of his home, which sounds like a possible bribe. But once again 1) he was caught and reviled for it and 2) this at least shows that massive tit-for-tat cash payments are probably not happening.

When I lived in Ohio, then-governor Bob Taft was under fire for similar unseemly behavior. Once again, though, it wasn’t the “taking home massive piles of cash” type of bribery. Rather, he was brought down for failing to disclose gifts such as golf outings.

In addition to the criminal sanctions, Taft was issued a public reprimand by the Ohio Supreme Court on December 27, 2006 for accepting and failing to report gifts and golf outings worth more than $6000.00. This reprimand was attached to Taft's license to practice law in Ohio.

So maybe there are back-room deals where lobbyists are directly buying votes with briefcases full of cash, but I doubt it.

 Another relevant case is that of my other former governor, Rod Blagojevich, who famously tried to “sell” president Obama’s Senate seat after Obama was elected president. From the link:

 Fraud involving the appointment of a senator to fill the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama is the most notable charge against Blagojevich. Blagojevich was overheard on a recorded phone call saying "I've got this thing, and it's f**king golden. I'm just not giving it up for f**king nothing." He was also recorded as saying, "it's a f**king valuable thing, you just don't give it away for nothing", and that "If I don't get what I want ... I'll just take the Senate seat myself."
 Blagojevich allegedly sought the following in exchange for an appointment:
 -A substantial salary for himself at either a non-profit foundation or an organization affiliated with labor unions.
-Placing his wife on paid corporate boards where he speculated she might garner as much as $150,000 a year.
-Promises of campaign funds—including cash up front.
-A Cabinet post or ambassadorship for himself to Serbia.
 In this case, he was arranging to take some of his money to the bank. He wasn't just asking for campaign funds as a quid pro quo (though that was one of several items). If he'd gotten his way he would have enriched himself in a way that effected his take-home pay. But a few things to bear in mind. 1) He didn't simply ask for a cash payment that he could take to the bank. 2) He apparently had to ask for these kick-backs; they weren't simply offered to him. He had to negotiate to get them. 3) This kind of stuff happens all the time. Politicians leave their elected posts and join private organizations that offer them lucrative salaries. Perhaps the politician joins a company and helps it to comply with the complex morass of regulations that the politician previously signed into law. Or perhaps the politician join a "non-profit" that s/he previously allocated public funds to and "earns" a healthy six-figure salary. Maybe this is my own mistaken impression, but I assumed this kind of stuff was going on all over the place. These shady deals aren't usually done as explicit quid pro quos; that would be illegal. Nor can the organizations (who benefit from a politician's actions) offer him a generous cash payment (one that they take to the bank, not a campaign contribution); that would be too obvious. But there's a winking, nodding understanding that "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine." Blagojevich's sin was to make the quid pro quo explicit. What made his action a crime was to say out loud what should have stayed unspoken. And finally, as in the cases discussed above, his misdeeds brought him down.

Of course none of this is to say that there isn't a problem. It's just that the problem is different from the one that the "Too much money in politics!" people complain about. The real problem is that there is too much politics in money. The government has too much control over the private resources of its citizens, too many funds to allocate, too much regulatory power, and too many favors to grant. So you will sometimes see private interests try to curry favor with politicians or vice versa. But this problem is massively exaggerated and misstated. Some people seem to hold this paranoid view that every single vote is bought and paid for by rich interests, with a cabal of billionaire elites running the show in the background. I think you have to explain away a lot of stories like those above to justify this worldview. Maybe these are public show-trials to cover up the more pervasive and far more egregious cases of bribery that are happening all the time? I think you would have to posit some absurd conspiracy theory to make this case.

Edit: I forgot to mention the fact that campaign spending doesn't seem to have much effect on election outcomes. See the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics article on Campaign Finance here. Someone could read my post above and think I'm clueless for belittling the influence of campaign spending. "Sure, politicians aren't literally taking home big piles of bribe-money. But 'the rich' are still buying elections." Well, read the encyclopedia entry in the link. There just isn't all that much campaign spending, and what spending there is doesn't affect election outcomes all that much.

Someone might also think I'm missing the point by belittling the roundabout bribes offered to politicians after their political careers end. Isn't bribing someone with a lucrative bullshit job just as bad as offering them a pile of cash for a vote? My point is that this kind of bribery is very roundabout, and organizations that seek to offer such bribes have to be very careful. The Blagojevich example is instructive.

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