Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Me, You, Cousin Bill and the Treasure Chest

Here's an editorial that no politician will write, but I've been thinking about it and promising it for weeks. So here you go, my liberal ass is going to give you a reason to love campaign finance and the fact that politics is now run by money.

First, background information... This is a scary political world we live in. You're reading this blog, so it's not likely that you're part of the problem, but look across the desk, there's a good chance that person is making the world scary. The world is scary because of how easily the world can be manipulated by campaign buttons, lawn signs and (worst of all) TV commercials. Which do you think will get Obama more votes in November a REALLY good platform on foreign policy or a snappy TV add? Scared you didn't I? He'll get my vote for foreign policy, he'll get your vote for foreign policy, but what about your dumb cousin Bill?

Money wins elections, or at least greatly influences them. As long as televisions exist, and probably longer, money will continue to be a deciding factor in elections. The overwhelming majority of people consider this a bad thing. While I can certainly see why campaign contributions like the $12,500 donations to Ravenstahl's campaign are a bad thing; What I want to do in the next paragraph is explain why campaign finance can be a good thing and in the last paragraph offer a few ideas about what can be done to ensure campaign finance is a positive force in Pittsburgh.

If money buys elections then the important question is, how do candidates get money? Some are independently wealthy, but most get money from you and I. Cousin Bill's vote is 100% purchasable, because he watches a lot of TV and he's not that bright. However, if I buy his vote then I get to cast two votes in the election (mind and his). If the money I donate buys 1000 votes, then I get to vote 1001 times. So the way to think of it is that you can vote twice, once with a ballet and once with your wallet. If you're like me, you're not going to vote with your wallet unless you feel pretty strongly about it because it's harder to earn money then it is to touch the new voting machines. That seems to me to be a good thing, when I really feel strongly about something, I can make an impact that really matters on an election with my wallet. On the other hand when I haven't done the research, don't know the candidates or don't feel strongly about either one I'll have a nice night on the town instead of voting with my wallet.

Of course for this to be a good thing, the following conditions need to be true:
  1. The people who vote with their wallets must be using the system to vote for the "right" reasons. There could be a lot of debate here over what the "right" reasons are, but that's a different discussion. For the time being let's just acknowledge that there are "right" (This woman will do the best job for our city) and "wrong" (If Jimmy gets elected we'll get the contract without even bidding) reasons to be voting. As often as possible, the people that vote with their wallets need to be voting for the "right" reasons.
  2. Everyone should have an equal, or as close to equal as possible, opportunity to vote with their wallets. This obviously can't be 100% true because people earn different amounts of money, but it should be as close as possible.

Ensuring those two things is where campaign finance reform comes in. I'm not for publicly funded campaigns because that takes away my "right" to vote with my wallet, then it's just a contest of whose PR consultant can best manipulate dumb Uncle Bill with the state provided money. I am for creative ways of solving problems 1 and 2, some thoughts for example.

  • First and foremost there need to be hard limits on how much money various entities can give to campaigns. The lower the limit the more equitable the voting by wallet is.
  • What if companies were simply not allowed to participate? I think the primary role of local politics is to serve the people in the constituency. Obviously this means bringing jobs and that means helping companies, but I don't think the companies themselves need a vote to do that. We don't give them a vote by ballot why give them one by wallet? I think this would help with problem #1.
  • If my reasons are "right" (see point 1), then would I care if the candidate knew I voted by wallet? What if all the contribution checks were written to the board of elections with a note about which candidate should receive them, then the elections board wrote the candidate an anonymous check?

I'm sure brighter minds then mine can come up with many many more. Let me know if you come up with any.

Nate McLouth's hitting streak is over, but at least the Pirate's losing streak is to. I get to go to the game on Friday!


Anonymous said...

I will ponder the food for thought on campaign finance reform. In the meantime can you spend a little time on the status quo of machine politics? This committee system seems whack to me. Do the committee people vote for the candidates who throw the best parties and those guys get the nomination? I have heard discussions recently on talk radio that lead me to believe it varies from county to county. Does this mean it varies across local communities too?

Burgher Jon said...


I'm going to assume you're talking about the Allegheny County Democtratic Comittee. To be honest, I do not have that firm of an understanding of how the comitee is funded, how influential it is and how it makes decisions about using that influence.

It is a topic I'm interested in, of course, so I do pledge to make an effort to figure it out and post about it more. I think it is one of those back areas of politics that the traditional news media does not discuss often... and I think those areas are where blogs such as this one can be extremely valuable.