Campaign finance laws and its limits

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:

The Atlantic: Top .01% income growth

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.

Complexity and politics

I’ve been reading a book called “Rethinking the Fifth Discipline” which is something of a treatise on organizational theory and complexity. The Fifth Discipline, is about creating a learning organization. Where the organization has naturally built-in processes that encourage learning through challenging mental models. What’s that mean? Well, anytime we approach a problem we have our own set ideas about what’s right and wrong with the problem. This leads us to develop specific solutions based on that perspective. When working in an organization these frameworks, perspectives or mental models can lead to conflict. Developing a method of resolving differences in these mental models is paramount to allow a company to move forward.

One of the ways to resolve these differences is to expand everyone’s perspective of the problem. To allow some of the scope to expand to generate a bigger picture. In other words, allowing people to see the forest for the trees. We know that we have a dead tree in the middle of our forest, and our actions to get that tree out may have negative impact on the rest of the forest. If one of the solutions was to burn down the dead tree, there could be some serious implications to the rest of the forest if we did that without really thinking about it. Working to resolve the differences may highlight the fact that we’re in the middle of a drought right now and that burning that dead tree would likely cause the entire forest to go up. This of course would be the worst thing we could do.

This way of viewing problems has several names, including complexity theory and systemic thinking. I believe that we have a serious lack of system thinking in our government today. There are two areas that have struck me as the most obvious and these involve the courts. The first is the continued assault on women’s rights in many different states. These state governments are slowly picking at pieces of reproductive rights of women when choosing to have an abortion or not. In some cases, the ruling is extremely narrow and seems to intentionally avoid looking at the full system of problems. The one shining light example against this is the ruling that has kept open a clinic in Mississippi. The judge realized that if this law was allowed to stand it would have closed the only legal clinic for abortions.

The other area that is a cause for concern is the recent PA ruling on Voter ID requirements. While on the face it seems like it’s fairly straight forward. I mean why shouldn’t there be a law requiring you to show a proper state ID, but then why isn’t a voter registration card considered a valid ID? Couldn’t this resolve the issue? The other factor that doesn’t seem to be considered, is the systemic efforts to make it more difficult to acquire state ID throughout the country, such as Wisconsin closing DMV locations or reducing hours – by the way Wisconsin’s voter ID law was ruled unconstitutional.

Through taking a systemic view the efforts in total indicate an effort to reduce or control the ability of the electorate to vote. While the law itself may make sense on the surface, viewing the entire system displays the total efforts and would indicate that a different ruling should be considered. This is the similar type of issue that there is with the Citizen’s United ruling. With a very narrow focus and inability to look at the full system a ruling that has dramatically changed our political landscape is seen to make a great deal of sense.

Upholding of Citizen’s United

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), upheld the controversial Citizen’s United ruling of two years ago. I’ve written about some of this in the past and I’ve talked to many people about the implications of this. However, there are two major tenets in this ruling that matter. One: that you cannot limit the amount of money spent during a campaign because that restrict free speech. Two: that two separate groups can raise funds and use their right to speech without corrupting the political candidate. Additionally, there were some ground rules that were established as to when you are considered breaking this ruling and in violation of the law. One of these is that the two groups cannot coordinate their strategies and that the two groups must remain independent of each other. 

In this most recent ruling, the SCOTUS essentially has stated that there hasn’t been any reason to revisit their previous ruling and that it now also applies to states. This is important as Montana had laws on the books that limited the amount of money that could be donated. This law was put into place to fight corruption in 1912.

This ruling is difficult because on one hand, at what point can you limit the amount of money someone wants to spend of their own money on political speech without restricting freedom of speech? If someone is willing to let you put ads up and pay money for it, isn’t it your right to do so? That part of the ruling is really difficult to argue with. However, The part that isn’t hard to argue with is the lack of independence. This has been pretty well displayed during the Republican primary. Without some of the mega funders campaigns effectively folded. Santorum is a prime example of this where his primary doner pulled out and that ended his campaign. Was this person willing to fund him because their views aligned extremely well or was Santorum changing his views to align more closely with the doner? We’ll never know to be sure, but it’s likely that there was conversations between parts of the campaigns and the doner.

In the US we will likely continue to have huge doners and this will likely continue unabated until we are able to pass a law or constitutional amendment to make this sort of donation illegal. Many liberals argue that the 1st amendment for free speech wasn’t designed to allow the wealthy to say whatever they want. That it was to give an equal voice to everyone. Sadly, media is run by people that wish to make a lot of money. Until we figure out a better way to disseminate political information that is unfiltered, we will likely continue to have the same unbalanced views portrayed.