Money in Politics

May 26, 2015

For decades before the Supreme Court decided Citizens United, political scientists concluded that more money helped our democracy by increasing competition. They had also concluded that it did not disadvantage Democrats, who would hold their own in fundraising. Even after Citizens United, those conclusions still seem true. But those scholars did not address other ways that money changes politics.

I’m still angry with Ralph Nader for his part in the 2000 election. His claim that there was no difference between the parties seems way off the mark. It’s hard to imagine Al Gore would have made the same mistakes George Bush did. But Nader was onto something else. Every candidate, from Gore to Hilary and Bush to Romney, has sought support from the financial industry and other tycoons and multinationals. Some regulatory proposals looked different when first made but all were whittled down. Obama supported Elizabeth Warren for a new agency but relented to the opposition. Money matters.

That’s fiendishly difficult to measure. Most scientific work is based on comparisons. When everybody’s doing it, there are no satisfactory comparisons.

But the consequences are huge. The cost of campaigns is increasing fast, doubling since 2000. More than a fifth of the expense of Senate races, and more than a third of the cost of House races came from PACs in 2014. Outside organizations now spend more than 20% of campaign expenses, increasingly from undisclosed sources. Of the rest, less than a third of 1% of the adult population of the U.S. provides two thirds of all individual contributions to federal candidates, PACs and Parties.[i]

What do they get for that? From 2007 to 2012, according to the Sunlight Foundation, “America’s most politically active corporations spent a combined $5.8 billion on federal lobbying and campaign contributions.” The Foundation concluded that, in return, those same corporations got “$4.4 trillion in federal business and support,” more than the government paid all Social Security recipients, and two-thirds of all the money that all of us together as “individual taxpayers paid into the federal treasury.” Kevin Phillips had described the power of such political investment as many thousands to one?[ii] Sunlight Foundation calculated that “for every dollar spent on influencing politics, the nation’s most politically active corporations received $760 from the government,” a seventy-six thousand percent return.[iii] Contributions coupled with lobbying work exceedingly well at those levels.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues elaborated the impact of what they call the “selectorate,” the people who dominate the choice of political leadership.[iv] As the selectorate shrinks, politicians direct ever increasing public benefits toward that shrinking group and fund them on the backs of everyone else, paving a path to the collapse of democratic government. Here, that one tenth of one percent of Americans, who bring home the great majority of America’s wealth, dominate our politics as they do our wallets.

Political scientists urge public funding as the best available solution. Just take money out of the equation. The public doesn’t like funding politicians they may not agree with, and we don’t much like paying their salaries either. But to get a politics which takes account of the welfare of the entire American population, it appears to be the most likely path. And a very good investment.

Next week, the risks.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 26, 2015.

[i] The Center for Responsive Politics keeps track of the data at OpenSecrets.org. See https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/index.php, https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/cost.php and https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/donordemographics.php [visited May 12, 2015] for the information presented.

[ii] Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy (Random House 2002).

[iii] https://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2014/11/17/fixed-fortunes-biggest-corporate-political-interests-spend-billions-get-trillions/.

[iv] Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2011); Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson and James D. Morrow, The Logic of Political Survival (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).


Canadian Comparative Religion Case

May 19, 2015

I’d like to tell you about a recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada regarding religious education.[1] Quebec has a “mandatory core curriculum” which includes a Program on Ethics and Religious Culture, to teach “about the beliefs and ethics of different world religions from a neutral and objective perspective” as the Court described it. It “requires teachers to be objective and impartial” and “to foster awareness of diverse values, beliefs and cultures.” The court decided that freedom of religion required Quebec to allow a Catholic school, to teach about Catholicism from a Catholic perspective, but the Court held that the school nevertheless needed to present other faiths in a neutral way, a position that the school largely accepted.

I understand the problems with the case. I understand that there will be difficulties interpreting and enforcing the decision and the law on which it is based, and in balancing the rights of the schools and the students. But it’s also very interesting.

It has always been legal to teach comparative religion or the history of religion in public schools in the United States. The so-called “wall of separation” has always been about fairness toward all the students, denying government the power to promote any religious viewpoint over others. It has not been about total exclusion from the classroom. Here’s what our Supreme Court wrote:

While study of religions and of the Bible from a literary and historic viewpoint, presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, need not collide with the First Amendment’s prohibition, the State may not adopt programs or practices in its public schools or colleges which “aid or oppose” any religion. [2]

We perceive “exclusion” from public places and programs because litigants typically want to promote a specific religion or doctrine rather than treat us to a display of inter-faith brotherly love. Multi-faith displays aren’t generally a problem – except for the promoters. Most Americans support that kind of basic fairness. And there is much to admire in what Quebec has tried to do.

Some congregations themselves teach their young people about the differences in the ways people pray, taking them as a group on tours of other houses of worship. Sometimes the little congregation where I pray plays host to such groups, a practice I admire very much.

I’ve felt lucky over the years to spend time at Chautauqua where religious lectures and services are programmed into the Amphitheatre, so even if you don’t plan on attending you may be mesmerized just passing by, as I was a few years ago hearing thousands of people in the Amphitheatre in this historically Protestant religious community reciting a prayer in Arabic as part of what they called their Abrahamic initiative, exploring the different faiths that have roots in the religious world of the patriarch Abraham and the ancient Hebrews. They explored it by including clerics from each of those traditions.

My college experience was similar – we had to go to services, regardless of whose, and programming in the main university chapel was ecumenical – so I heard some of the world’s finest theologians of the era, regardless of faith.

I came to appreciate the fact that the finest minds of most faiths understand the similarity of their religious worlds, and the identity of unanswerable questions with which we all struggle. Most of all I appreciate what unites us and the import of that unity for us all.

Given the rise of religious war and cruelty in many parts of the world, I can’t bring myself to take brotherhood for granted. It is the hard won prize of our America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 19, 2015.

[1] Loyola High School v. Quebec, 2015 SCC 12 (2015), available at http://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/14703/index.do

[2] Epperson v. Ark., 393 U.S. 97, 106 (U.S. 1968) quoting McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 225 (1948).


Listening, Learning and Law Enforcement

May 12, 2015

Not long ago, I met the daughter of two of my wife’s high school teachers. Grant and Joyce Banks were legendary in Rutherford County. They traveled to the homes and met the families of every one of their students. Their purpose was to get to know and understand the circumstances of each of the people in their classes. They had no grading pad with them, just the warmth of their own personalities. When we got married, my wife took me to see them and we visited in their home. The last time I saw them was at my mother-in-law’s funeral – Mrs. Banks was too ill then to get out of the car but we stepped outside and talked with them.

Think about the possibilities of taking policemen around to meet every family on their beats, hat in one hand, the other outstretched and weapons back in the car, just to meet, and get to know the people. “Hi, I’m so and so.” “Are there things you’d like me to know?” “Have you had any problems with the police?” And just listen, without response except to make it clear you’re listening. In law school classes we call that active listening, so people understand that you hear them, understand what they are going through, and care about them. This isn’t the time for advice, instruction or explanations. Just “I hear what you’re telling me. I can’t make any promises but I will certainly bring up your concerns at the station or with my boss.” It’s a listening tour, but a very personal one.

That can be hard. I’ve had to endure criticism for some things I’ve run. It really didn’t matter whether the criticism was correct, helpful or plain nonsense – I’ve learned from hard experience that when people tell you what they want you to know, they are not waiting around for you to contradict them. They want to know you’ve heard. Responding is a separate problem and a skill in itself. The best lawyers understand that counseling their clients isn’t as simple as telling them what’s what. I remember one of the named partners of the corporate firm I started with telling our client over the phone from New York to California what my research made clear he had to do. Listening in Marty’s office I knew the client would not. A few weeks earlier, our client had his picture on the cover of Business Week. A few weeks later his company was delisted from the stock exchange. Counseling people, even when you’re right on the money, is not as simple as telling them.

For the police, it is crucial not to get into arguments with people – just to listen. Both the police and the residents have a good deal to learn about each other. And it can’t be done in the first conversation. In some fields this is called soft power. Police are used to thinking in terms of hard power – the power of guns and force. But without soft power, the power of empathy and trust – BOTH ways – their jobs are virtually impossible. I’d make every cop do it, and collectively I’d make sure they covered every family in the neighborhood – here, Baltimore, wherever. Cops have to learn to internalize the value of listening to people even, especially, when people are upset. If and when they learn to understand what people are struggling with, if and when they start cheering and rooting for the people in the neighborhood, we may be able to put most of the violence behind us.

Oh, visiting people like the Banks did might work in the schools too!

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 11, 2015.


“Free Range Children”

May 5, 2015

It never occurred to me that I’d be talking about “free range children” as if they were a species of fowl and the big question was whether to let them out of the coop. But apparently it’s become an issue.[1]

I was brought up in New York City – in the heart of Brooklyn. I believe I was walking to elementary school in the second grade. It was about half a mile. My folks showed me how and watched as I showed I could. By the time I was ten I was playing stick ball two blocks away and squash closer to a mile away. I remember crossing the busiest street in the neighborhood, by myself, thinking only of sharing the impending Dodger victory with a friend, who met me instead with the news that Bobby Thompson had crushed our dreams. I was nine. I think they moved a couple of years later and I got on my bike and rode several miles to his house. He and I would ride to the shore and into Queens, as far as the sleepy little airport then called Idlewild – it’s now known by its initials, J.F.K. By junior high I was taking the bus several miles to see the orthodontist in a different part of Brooklyn.

Not long after, I’d travel with friends to the National Tennis Tournament at Forest Hills, in Queens, and had the pleasure of seeing many of the greats of that age, some at very close range. Or off to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers.

I thought of New York City as my oyster. It was all within a bike or a subway ride away.

Our children grew up in Albany. We taught them how to do things, gave them guidance and the opportunity to show they were responsible, plus a cell phone or, before cell phones, the knowledge and money to call if they needed us. And they told us what they were doing and with whom, before if they knew. We spent lots of time with them and were always available for them, but children need opportunities to fledge their wings and to grow.

We taught them how and soon they walked themselves to school – elementary and high school. Junior high was further away and they rode the bus. They ranged around the neighborhood on foot or by bike to see their friends. Our son bought himself a bike with money he earned as a paper boy for the now defunct Knick News. I admit we were sometimes bothered by the rides he took, initially with a bike-riding friend, from our house to Schenectady, or, gulp, to Ballston Spa. Of course as a three year old child he had showed his grandpa how to get to the airport in West Virginia by bus so they could have lunch watching the planes take off and land. The one trip that really made us gulp was when he announced that he’d used his money as a paper boy to buy himself a ticket to visit his grandpa in Florida. We were not confident of grandpa’s driving ability anymore and our son was too young to drive. But my wife and I were too proud of him to stop him from going. We wanted to encourage, not squelch him.

We did not raise free range children. We raised strong, resourceful and independent children, and we’re very proud of them.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 5, 2015.

[1] Andrea McCarren, Parents in trouble again for letting kids walk alone, USA Today, April 13, 2015 http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/04/13/parents-investigated-letting-children-walk-alone/25700823/; Camila Turner, Arrests for leaving kids home alone made every day, The Telegraph, March 27, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/11498123/Arrests-for-leaving-kids-home-alone-made-every-day.html; Caitlin Schmidt, Florida mom arrested after letting 7-year-old walk to the park alone, CNN, August 1, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/31/living/florida-mom-arrested-son-park/.


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