On the need for political finance reform…


Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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62 Responses

  1. Avatar Will Truman says:

    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.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      You are not the only such person. Rarely have I regretted watching a TED talk and often I find myself intellectually excited by them. Sure, there’s a little pretense and a little “gee whiz!” but there is almost always a good idea in there and little can liberate the mind like the joy of a new idea.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      I consider myself a TED-skeptic.

      They are not all bad. Some are very interesting and offer good knowledge but the more socio-political feel calculated not to offend the very rich people who buy the tickets.

      They would never invite Timothy Noah to talk about income inequality. They will invite Hannah Rossin to talk about the “End of Men” when the more accurate but less likely to sell copy title should be “The End of Some Men” or “Why can we get women to be the first people in their families to attend college but not men?”Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I enjoy them, though I think ND’s critiques are valid. If you view them as a starting off point for educating yourself on a topic, they’ll serve you well. If you plan to cite them to win an argument with a reasonably intelligent person, you might wind up with egg on your face.

        What they’re often best for is boiling down a complex and/or dry idea and making it accessible to the masses.Report

      • Avatar T. Greer says:

        Oh, they will invite people to talk about inequality. They just won’t share it afterwords. Report

        • Avatar NewDealer says:

          I should have broadended to say that they will generally not invite or share for speakers who threaten their largely wealthy and technocratically centric world view. They are like DAVOS with youtube videos.

          Hanna Rossin does not shatter their image. Timothy Noah does because he suggests that not everyone benefits from neo-liberal deregulation of economic policy.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:


        In many working class families, there is an implication that higher education is feminine or if not feminine at least effeminate. A lot of working-class men probably do not want to go to college because they think the manly think to do is work right away or that the type of job college will lead to is entirely unmanly. When you add the old stereotype of male intellectuals as eggheads, you’d see why people with a certain investment in a certain form of masculinity avoid college.

        Now we educated types know this bulk. Business people, doctors, lawyers, and computer programers are all capable of being very machismo. All of these careers require a lot of education.Report

        • Avatar superdestroyer says:

          Maybe the problem is that the more “manly” degrees in college are the hardest to botain and by far the easiest to fail. Petroleum engineering is one of the highest paying job right out of college and if one of the highest paid career fields. I wound not call it feminine.

          However, getting a degree in petroleum engineering is very hard to do. There are few undergraduate programs and they fail out a large percentage of their students.

          Women can major in mass communication or art history and still get a pick collar job. Women can major in social work, early childhood education, or interior design but very few men will.Report

          • Avatar LeeEsq says:

            They could study history or economics than go to law school or work for a few years and go back for an MBA. Law, for all its problems, and MBAs are manly. They could just man up and realize a college degree of some sorts is necessary these days and study computer programming.

            I also think that a lot of men are under the impression that if they seem overly educated, it would hurt their romantic and sexual prospects.Report

            • Avatar superdestroyer says:

              When less than 50% of law school graduates working in law and many graduate who work in law are working in very low paying jobs, Law school is not a good choice. If you want to be in your 30’s, unemployed, and owing a ton a student laws, then law school is the thing to do.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq says:

                I know. I was trying to come up with manly jobs or at least jobs with a machismo culture that require higher education. Law, fimance, computer programming, engineering, and even accountancy have macho cultures.Report

          • Avatar NewDealer says:


            There is nothing masculine or feminine about education or any field of study.

            Believing that Petroleum Engineering is more masculine than Philosophy makes one a bit specialReport

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          Education is both unfeminine and unmasculine, according to the research. it makes women more masculine, and men more feminine.Report

    • Avatar George Turner says:

      No one who wears a vest on stage can be taken seriously in the political arena. They obviously don’t have much financial backing or any competent handlers.

      George Lester, esq.Report

  2. Avatar Kolohe says:

    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.Report

  3. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    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.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      I think one of the worst aspects of our Constitution was the high bar set to amend it. It really could have been a lot lower.Report

    • Avatar dan Miller says:

      We could just flood the system with a huge amount of public financing, which would accomplish a lot even without any amendmentReport

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        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.Report

        • Avatar George Turner says:

          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.Report

          • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

            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.Report

          • Avatar Will Truman says:

            I think the concerns of specialized bodies is that they would be more susceptible to campaign money influence. After a while, you run into candidate fatigue. Then money matters even more because people go out and vote for the guy or gal they’ve heard of.Report

          • Avatar Kimmi says:

            We did elect someone below the federal poverty line to the US Senate. I’d say we’re due for someone without a college degree.Report

  4. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    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?Report

  5. Avatar James K says:

    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.Report

  6. Avatar DRS says:

    What the heck is a TED-talk?Report

  7. Avatar superdestroyer says:

    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.Report

  8. Avatar Damon says:

    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.Report