Today, marked the second time the Supreme Court ruled against setting maximum campaign contributions. First, it was a limit on corporations, now it’s the limit an individual can contribute in a given year. The first ruling is called Citizens United and I was initially very against this ruling because I felt that it would give undo influence to corporations. However, based on the argument Lawrence Lessig provides in “Republic Lost” – that at what point does an arbitrary limit on spending make sense? For example, if I decide to spend a lot of money on ads for a specific candidate through multiple different channels. The problem isn’t that I, as an extremely wealthy person or organization, can spend as much as I want, it’s that there’s an inequality between what You, as a poor pleb, are able to spend. This creates an inequity in the free-ness of speech.
We know that the amount of money a person can raise heavily influences their success rate in the election. This isn’t a surprise as the candidate is able to run more ads and reach a broader audience than the candidate with less money. There’s nothing new to this. Furthermore, the current structure of our media makes it amenable to rich people that spend a lot of money. The limit of $123,000/year/candidate didn’t really impact how much money a wealthy individual actually spent on the elections. Based on this biased news source, the Koch brothers spent over $2 million in more than one state. So, the campaign limits didn’t really work as designed regardless of the limits set. The Supreme Court Ruling basically just aligned the law with reality and didn’t change a whole lot.
Campaign Finance reform is just a band aid over a much greater systemic problem. This is something that Lessig was trying to address in his book, other writers have tried to address through different books, and tech leaders through cruise ships off the coast of San Francisco.
However, I think that this Atlantic image really shows the problem:
We live in a highly unequal society and the finance rules for campaigns was an attempt to set arbitrary limits to control the influence of the wealthiest Americans. It wasn’t working. The Supreme Court admitted it. Now we need to figure out how to actually fix this extremely difficult problem – that some portions of the population refuse to see as a problem.
I don’t have a solution to this problem. Lessig proposes we use laws to encourage accepting public funds and the creation of that fund through taxes. This would eliminate the influence on donations – which directly or indirectly impact the vote from a person in Congress. Creating something that more effectively through the right incentives and behavior modification is a good start to address the inequality we have in our country.
I think that the growing inequality is hurting our country. When we were much more equal in terms of economic status, we were innovating, for real innovation, not applications. We were developing things to send people to the moon. The greater the separation the top percentages has from the bulk of the population the more risk adverse they’ve become. They aren’t helping push us towards bigger and better things. We need the equality to help drive innovation. That’s the root cause of the problem. Campaign Finance reform was attempting to address a symptom and not even well. Let’s figure out how to address the root cause.