Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Best Government Money Can Buy

January 18, 2012, 5:00 a.m.; added item January 22.

Connecting the Dots
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows
-- Leonard Cohen, "Everybody Knows"

"Everybody knows."

Everybody knows our political process, and thus ultimately our government, is corrupted with the influence of money. (See, "More Support for Going Communist Than Congress," November 16, 2011.) Sometimes it's illegal bribery. More often it's perfectly legal "campaign contributions." As I've often said, "The problem is not so much that corporations violate the law. It's that they write the law."

There's no little pill we can take to solve this problem. Even if there were, Big Pharma would patent it and then raise the price beyond the ability of any but the top 1% to pay for it. And those folks would have no reason to take it. They are not suffering from this political disease; they're profiting from it.

What we can do, by way of baby steps toward a solution, is to publicize the data that will enable the media and the people to connect the dots. We need to see, not just that politicians get money from special interests, not just that government largess tends to be squandered on those least in need of it. We need to see the unmistakable direct connection between the contributions and the return on that "investment."

Fifteen years ago I wrote a column in the Des Moines Register making this connection. A little research disclosed the "rate of return" on political "contributions." It turned out to be 1000 to one. That is, those who gave $1 million (say, in soft money for a political party's national convention) could expect to receive $1 billion in return. This online reproduction of that column actually provides the footnotes of verification: Nicholas Johnson, "Campaigns: You Pay $4 or $4000," Des Moines Register, July 21, 1996, p. C2. (The "$4 or $4000" reference was the contrast between what citizens would pay for public financing of campaigns ($4 each) compared with the additional amounts we have to pay as consumers and taxpayers when they are funded by corporations and the wealthy ($4000).)

In years past, this blog would occasionally give a "Hat's Off" award for outstanding journalism. Two years ago the Register and Clark Kauffman were awarded one for an investigative report of nursing home "contributions." Clark Kauffman: Clark Kauffman, "Nursing home groups donate to lawmakers," Des Moines Register, November 16, 2008, and Clark Kauffman, Industry Courts Legislators," Des Moines Register, November 16, 2008. Nicholas Johnson, "Hats Off" to Register for Money in Politics Expose; Register Wins "Hats Off" Award for Expose: Tawdry Impact of Campaign Contributions on Iowa's Nursing Home Public Policy," November 17, 2008.

Clark Kauffman remains on the case. But sadly, things seem not to have improved over the past four years according to the January 22 Des Moines Register: Clark Kauffman, "Lobbyists, Not Public, Met Panel; The Governor's Office Had Refused to Say Who Came to the Meetings About Sex Offenders in Nursing Homes," Des Moines Register, January 22, 2012, p. B1.

Earlier that year this blog commented, "Unfortunately, . . . investigative reporting of money in Iowa politics and governing is all too rare. Occasionally there will be stories regarding which legislators have raised how much money. There may even be a reference to where some of that money came from. Very rarely is there an effort to investigate the extent to which there is a relationship between the sources of campaign funds and the votes of the recipients -- let alone a routine reporting of these relationships for every single member of the Iowa legislature." Nicholas Johnson, "Golden Rules & Revolutions: A Series, Part VIII: Money and Lobbyists in Iowa: Smoke and Mirrors," April 19, 2008.

Last Sunday [Jan. 15] the Register did it again: Lee Rood, "Most tax incentives awarded to wealthy companies; More than $809 million in Iowa tax breaks went to 50 companies in seven years," Des Moines Register, January 15, 2012, p. A1 ("State leaders gave the lion’s share of Iowa’s economic development tax breaks from 2003 to 2010 to some of the most profitable businesses in the country, awarding 50 companies more than $809 million in seven years.")

This was an extraordinary bit of research and reporting, certainly warranting another "Hat's Off" for the Register and, in this instance, Lee Rood.

But while the nursing home story concentrated on receipt of campaign contributions, Rood's story concentrates on the distribution of taxpayers' money to the wealthy.

We have still not connected the dots. We need to know not only how much legislators receive in "contributions" (and from whom), we need to know not only how much they give away (and to whom). We need to know the relationship between what each individual legislator (or member of Congress) received from a given special interest (or its lobbyists) and how that individual legislator voted on the subsequent largess to that contributor.

By Monday [Jan. 16] we finally had an example of what I've been calling for. The New York Times focused on former Senator Rick Santorum, now a candidate for president in the Republican primaries. Michael Luo and Mike McIntire, "Donors Gave as Santorum Won Earmarks," New York Times, January 16, 2012, p. A1.

As Luo and McIntire report, "The announcements flowed out of Rick Santorum’s Senate office: a $3.5 million federal grant to Piasecki Aircraft to help it test a new helicopter propeller technology; another $3.5 million to JLG Industries to bolster its bid to build all-terrain forklifts for the military; $1.4 million to Medico Industries to upgrade equipment for its munitions work. . . . A review of some of his earmarks, viewed alongside his political donations, suggests that the river of federal money Mr. Santorum helped direct to Pennsylvania paid off handsomely in the form of campaign cash."

That's what I mean.

It's hard work connecting those dots. Those who have such information are reluctant to share it. But our democracy demands no less -- from the media, the academic and research communities, the government, indeed all of us.

As my favorite school superintendent's wall sign had it: "In God we trust; all others must bring data" (attributed to W. Edwards Deming).

In short, it's not enough that "everybody knows."

Without data, without connecting the dots, what everybody knows is unlikely to ever become what everybody does.

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1 comment:

Alex Lavidge said...

"We need to see the unmistakable direct connection between the contributions and the return on that 'investment.'"

Of course, with the Web there are sites like that make it easier than ever to follow the money and connect the dots. And bloggers everywhere help to speed up that process to understand quid pro quo relationships throughout politics in the public sphere.

So the deeper question is then, perhaps, "how do we get more people to care?" And while I can't claim to provide the answer in a short sound byte, I'm certain that it will involve more than just "education."

But if that I think the only nonviolent hope for change is probably going to come with figuring out how to make clean elections and the public financing of elections fair, equitable, and more importantly -- marketable to the American public.