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Re: [govtrack] Reporting on Money-and-Votes

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  • TML
    Interesting article/rant, Josh! My takeaway from it is that, while nothing can be proven , there continues to be a perception that money influences/buys
    Message 1 of 2 , Mar 29, 2008
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      Interesting article/rant, Josh!  My takeaway from it is that, while nothing can be 'proven', there continues to be a perception that money influences/buys votes.  As you indicate, that seems to be the consensus among those who study the problem and seek various remedies, through campaign finance reform and/or public funding schemes to remove - at least the perception - of 'bought votes'.

      I think there are two things to keep in mind about the issue of 'money in politics', that don't typically get much mention in the discussion:

      1)  As in the area of law enforcement/adjudication, the perception of corruption is as bad as actual corruption, in that there is little difference in the effect it has on the trust citizens have in their government to do the right thing for the right reasons.  This is the underlying principle behind appointing judges and prosecutors to office, rather than electing them.  The mere perception of politics (and in our system, the $$ supporting it) determining judicial viability, rather than judicial temperament/experience/intellect, is enough to have a corrosive effect on one of the last, trusted, pillars of American government: the rule of law.  There is no perfect way to determine the best person for a job, but there are less bad ways.  (Unfortunately, there seems to be a rising tide of opinion that 'judicial appointment' is undemocratic and therefore suspect if not illegitimate.  Is the practice of politics so good today that we want to infect the judiciary with more of the same?)  So it is with 'money in politics': the perception of corruption - regardless of evidence of actual corruption - is enough to demand accountability and change before citizens lose complete faith in their constitutionally-mandated role within a participatory democracy.

      2)  It pays (no pun intended) to remember not just who is giving the money, but where the money finally ends up after being filtered through the party system and the campaigns: for-profit media conglomerates.  Remember that the media conglomerates are the conduit by which private (or public) money buys eyeballs on behalf of political campaigns.  In other words, beyond the dynamic of donors with an agenda giving $$ to the campaigns of individual legislators - or the party they belong to - in the hope (or demand) for specific legislation or favor, there is the dynamic of a private interest  receiving guaranteed profits (essentially a limitless subsidy) for their part in the administration of a public good: the American electoral system.  Overt restriction of private financing of political campaigns seems destined to run into First Amendment issues, while wholesale public financing seems to be a non-starter politically.  Funding production costs and transportation fees for candidates is good, padding the private profits of big media is bad.

      These two items: the perception of corruption and the massive participation of the private interest in the electoral system, combined, should form the floor by which citizens determine whether or not that system is viable or relevant to the will of voters participating in that system.

      Judging by the general dissatisfaction citizens have with the current system, it would appear that they increasingly do not.

      There are a number of topics that flow from all this that I write about more extensively in a little blog I administer, if anyone wants more background:
      1. The concept of gerrymandering, its history and its current role in perpetuating 'manufactured' majorities in state and federal legislatures largely due to increases in computer processing power over the past 20 years.
      2. A possible third way - not public financing, and not laissez-faire private financing - to provide media exposure for local/state/federal office-seekers, by extending an existing media model already present in all 50 states.  Cheers, Thomas


      :::  Blog - www.citixen.org  :::

      On Mar 27, 2008, at 17:36, Josh Tauberer wrote:

      [I'm reposting something I just wrote on the Open House Project mail 
      list. If you're reporting on correlations between money and votes, 
      please read on.]

      I think we all agree that there's a problem with money and what happens
      in Congress. What's not clear is what the nature of the problem is. To
      what degree is it each of the following:

          A problem of a perception of impartiality.

          Actual impartiality, but of a sort that doesn't impact law-making.
          For instance, mere increased 'access'.

          Actual impartiality that causes a sort of selectional bias on what
          bills are considered, but doesn't affect, say, votes.

          Actual impartiality that affects votes.

          Systemic biases that cause a sort of selectional bias on who
          wants to run and gets elected into Congress.

      Some aspects are clear. Perceptions of impartiality are not particularly
      welcomed by the public, and we know quite well that money gives access
      and that money sometimes writes legislation. However, to date there is
      no particular proof of any systematic causal relation between money and
      votes (in that direction at least).

      Of all the ways that money is bad for politics, it doesn't seem to
      actually cause any Member to change his mind on a vote, as far as the
      academics who study this can find.

      It's a very serious matter when one reports on the relation between
      money and votes in Congress because we all *want* to believe in deep
      corruption (what a scoop it is) and we are eager to accept such claims.
      To me, that means we must hold ourselves to a pretty high standard.
      Reporting the facts is not enough. Facts need appropriate context and
      interpretation to counterbalance our (the public's) own eagerness to
      believe in corruption.

      I posted something just now on the blog

      which is basically a conclusion to the above. I paste it below:

      Let me give you two headlines, and you can tell me your reaction to each:

      A) Big Oil Finances the Republican Party
      B) Congressional Votes Correlated with Big Oil Contributions

        From the headlines you’d think the articles are about two separate
      facts about the world. That is, that the two facts are independent. One
      can read the first article and then still be surprised after reading
      through the second article. A friend of mine says about the second
      hypothetical headline, “I think the votes are sort of taking it to the
      next step of association.” Compare those with these headlines:

      A) Factory Emissions Tied to Deadly Cancer
      B) Life Expectancy Lower in Factory Towns

      Here you’d say the articles are about the same thing: clearly, because
      more deadly cancer means more deaths, and that means lower life
      expectancy. If everyone already knew (A) from an expose last year, when
      a newspaper reports (B) we say what an idiot the reporter must have been
      — he just reported the same thing again.

      That’s what’s happening with money-and-votes analyses. The facts are
      more complicated, and the results are less clear, so it’s easy to
      overlook the problem here. But the problem is here.

      We all already know that Big Oil gives more to Republicans than to
      Democrats. If you didn’t know, you know now. It’s an interesting point;
      no qualms there. Since the Republicans support big business and the
      Democrats support the environment (whatever, you get the idea), it makes
      sense. Fine.

      But because of that, I know immediately that any vote related to Big Oil
      is likely to go down with an uneven distribution of money coming from
      Big Oil between Yes votes and No votes. In fact, it has nothing at all
      to do with Republicans and Democrats having different views on oil in
      particular. It’s just that Republicans and Democrats either all vote
      together (on naming post offices) or vote against each other (on
      everything else). The votes where everyone agrees are not relevant here:
      you can’t have an uneven distribution of money between Yes and No votes
      when there aren’t No votes to begin with. Since the relevant votes are
      almost always split on party lines, of course there is going to be a
      correlation between money and votes.

      What I mean by of course is that no one should be surprised to learn
      about a big correlation between money and votes if it has already been
      established that there is a correlation with contributions to a
      particular party. Finding out the magnitude, in dollars, of the
      correlation doesn’t change anything. It might as well be reported as
      “Big Oil Gives $XXX more to Republicans than to Democrats.” This
      headline is less exciting, but it’s the same thing. Throwing in votes
      just makes it sound more important, and it is misleading because it
      makes it sound like there is something new and nonobvious to be learned.

      Let’s look at what is being reported. I paraphrase from Follow the Oil

            Of the 25 Representatives who took the most Big Oil money per term
      between 2000 and 2007 Representatives, 23 were Republicans. Of the 25
      Representatives who took the least amount of Big Oil money per term
      between 2000 and 2007, 22 were Democrats. … Representatives who voted
      against clean energy proposals took more than 4.5 times more oil money
      than those who voted in the public interest.

      Why not just say “Republicans” took more than 4.5 times more oil money
      than “Democrats”? (Well, the number may change a bit of course, but
      that’s the idea.) The votes have nothing to do with it unless it is
      showed that the votes were something other than decided roughly on party
      lines. It’s another question entirely whether the money influenced the
      votes, or whether votes influence future contributions — a question that
      is unsolved.

      I raised a similar issue previously

      with some numbers from MAPLight. To paraphrase their analysis and
      interjecting my own totals:

            Opponents of H.R. 1424 gave an average of $22,479 to Republicans
      and $12,646 to Democrats. These industry groups gave an average of
      $22,693 to legislators who voted No on this bill, compared to $14,183 to
      legislators who voted Yes.

      Can you guess what happened? It’s no accident that $22,479 is close to
      $22,693 and $12,646 is close to $14,183. The Republicans predominantly
      voted No and the Democrats predominantly voted Yes. Actually the vote
      wasn’t exactly evenly split, which makes the results more interesting.
      You can still see an effect of money on the vote beyond the party
      difference, as I noted in that post, but it’s a much smaller correlation.

      To wrap it up, correlations between money and votes is interesting, and
      suggests at least the perception of impartiality. This makes it
      important at face value, I agree. But whereas people are quick to agree
      the numbers do not suggest causality, the fact that they are being
      presented suggests to the public that there is something new and
      interesting to be learned from them. This is the misleading part,
      because as I showed the numbers are often merely shadows of what we
      already know: that money goes unevenly to the parties. If we want to
      learn something new, we must look much more carefully at the numbers and
      the votes.

      (end of rant)

      - Josh Tauberer
      - GovTrack.us

      "Yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation!  Yields
      falsehood when preceded by its quotation!" Achilles to
      Tortoise (in "Godel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter)


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