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Can you change people's minds about money in politics?

I'm doing a BloggingHeads later today with Larry Lessig to discuss his excellent article on the ways in which the torrent of money in politics harms both outcomes and perceptions of the political process. This morning, Tyler Cowen posted a link to this paper (pdf) by David Primo and Jeffrey Milyo that undermines the whole concept:

The decline of political efficacy and trust in the United States is often linked to the rise of money in politics. Both the courts and reform advocates justify restrictions on campaign donations and spending as necessary for the improvement of links between the government and the governed.

We conduct the first test of whether campaign finance laws actually influence how citizens view their government by exploiting the variation in campaign finance regulations both across and within states during the last half of the 20th century. Our analysis reveals no large positive effects of campaign finance laws on political efficacy. Public disclosure laws and limits on contributions from organizations are in some cases associated with modest increases in efficacy, but public financing is associated with a similarly modest decrease in efficacy.

My personal view is that there's a big difference between the problems that money introduces into legislation and the problems that money introduces into the public's view of the political system. I think the former is arguably overstated, and perfectly possible to fix. Passing Dick Durbin's Fair Elections Act would be an excellent start.

But I think the latter is, if anything, understated, and is almost impossible to fix. It's hard to imagine anything but a blanket ban on corporate money (which would be unconstitutional) that comes after a bruising and public fight seriously changing public perceptions of the system's legitimacy. And that's not somehow irrational. People are right to believe that they have less power in the system than corporate actors, and they'd be wrong to believe the situation had changed unless the situation had actually changed. But changing that situation requires reforms that are almost inconceivably radical, including a constitutional amendment.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 12, 2010; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  Government  
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The lack of honesty in public debate leaves a "reasoning vacuum" for people to fill, often in harmful ways. If our leaders were more open about the costs and benefits they considered in making policy, we would have fewer conspiracy theories about corporations, unions, and other interests. People are just trying to make sense of our system.

Posted by: jduptonma | February 12, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Public campaign financing would require a constitutional amendment?

Posted by: eb53 | February 12, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

There was also a post on Monkey Cage about limited effects of corporate campaign spending in states with restrictions. This study and that one both seem to miss the fundamental difference between federal and state level governance -- not just a difference in magnitude, a difference in kind, I would suggest. When you examine the staggering amount of health care industry spending on campaign contributions and lobbying in the last year, you can start to imagine how much they might be prepared to spend on candidates to block any meaningful reform -- they only need 41 Senators, so they would probably have to buy only a few.

Posted by: bill0465 | February 12, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

There is no Constitutional right to bribe public officials in the actual Constitution (the Roberts' Court's 5-4 majority may say differently of course).

Posted by: redwards95 | February 12, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

My concerns over union money and Soros money equal my concerns over corporate money. How about you?

Posted by: bgmma50 | February 12, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

"My personal view is that there's a big difference between the problems that money introduces into legislation and the problems that money introduces into the public's view of the political system."

This is some major crack smokage occurring right here.

Money. Buys. Influence. When you have people in a position to influence billions of dollars, it becomes a bargain to pay them millions of dollars not to do anything immoral or wrong, mind you, but simply to keep their hands off of it.

And any talk of laying this at the feet of the people who rightfully earned the money pretends that politicians don't want to sell their influence. In fact, they do.

Posted by: cpurick | February 12, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Lessig lets the corporate bribers off the hook by glossing over the outright influence buying and focusing on the public perception.

He says basically; even if it doesn't buy votes, it creates the perception of a bought congress.

Of course it buys votes - straight up. If it didn't, why the hell would industry spend those thousands of millions of dollars? They can do cost-benefit analysis better'n anyone.

Posted by: jeirvine | February 12, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse


I agree with you that it buys votes, but it's Ezra that's claimed otherwise, not Lessig. What Lessig says is that even if it doesn't by votes it's a problem. That's not the same as saying it doesn't buy votes, it's just hard to prove that it does, and you'll always have "show me" like Ezra.

My response to the claim that it doesn't buy votes is to say "prove that it doesn't". It's an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary proof, and absent that I'll stick with common sense.

Posted by: alex50 | February 12, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

The Supreme Court ruling happened only a month or so ago.....was the world perfect in the time in between when it was passed and that ruling----or was suspicion actually worse.

To me McCain-Feingold punished the real grass roots efforts to effect elections through information campaigns by special interests---or at least that had been the intention. The real effect (thank God) was to accelerate the effort by which grass root organization asserted themselves, since they had to do it earlier in the process, lest they be accused of "electioneering" which of course is their whole idea.....

To me the artificial attempt by McCain-Feingold to limit a truly free Democratic dialogue served to empower the establishment---people like AIG, Pelosi's billionaire banking cronies, and others.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | February 12, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse


As a non-PhD there's something important you should know about PhD statistical research. When you hear a line like above, "Our analysis reveals no large positive effects of campaign finance laws on political efficacy.", this could totally be due to the fact that the tests have very weak power to tell you anything.

My old finance department chairman, Christopher Lamerouex, once told me they had a saying in the 80s, "That test couldn't prove William "the Refrigerator" Perry's not your mama!"

It's just the data is so weak and limited that it can't prove even very obvious things using all of the common knowledge, both formal, informal, from other fields, logical, etc., data like 350 lb. black men cannot biologically have children.

It's like if you want to test if the United States is richer than Venezuela, and instead of using the tons of data that overwhelmingly shows this, you use only data on hair health and thickness. And you say, "Our analysis reveals no statistically significant difference in wealth between the United States and Venezuela (looking at no other data, no other logic, no other evidence, than hair thickness and health. That hair data is not enough to tell us at the 5% level of significance which country is wealthier). So does that mean the United States is not wealthier than Venezuela? Of course not; you could easily, using other evidence, put together rock solid logic chains anchored to extremely realistic assumptions, showing it is.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | February 12, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

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