Sunday, August 14, 2011

Can we boycott bipartisanship instead?

In the NY Times, Joe Nocera advocates boycotting donations to political campaigns as a way to get politicians to "begin acting responsibly." Somehow, he considers this idea "hardheaded and practical." There are so many things wrong with this column it's hard to know where to start, but I'll give it a shot.

The first and most important point here is that the column bespeaks an outright hostility to democracy. Nocera approvingly quotes Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz* as saying, "The fundamental problem is that the lens through which Congress approaches issues is re-election." A word of advice: avoid reform suggestions from people who claim that the re-election incentive is a problem. The re-election incentive is the entire point of a representative democracy. It's what distinguishes members of Congress from tyrants. It ensures that elected officials will try to do what the people who elected them want them to do, rather than just doing whatever they want or following the lead of the most charismatic politician in DC.

Okay, that issue aside, the whole idea of boycotting contributions to candidates has a serious collective action problem associated with it. As Nocera admits, the boycott would have to be bipartisan to work, otherwise one party would dominate the party that refused to give to candidates. Yeah, that's kind of a big stumbling block there. Since those who donate to candidates tend to be the most loyal partisans, you're going to have a hard time convincing them to lay down arms while trusting that the other side is doing the same thing.

Third, Nocera and Schultz seem to be confused about the role money plays in politics. Note this paragraph:
Schultz began doing some research. In 2000, he said, total campaign contributions, to all politicians, amounted to $3 billion. Four years later, it was $4 billion. In the 2008 election year, he said, "it went up another billion, to $5 billion. I was astonished.... It is a sad state of affairs that the only thing they’ll listen to is money."
It's really not clear to me how they get from point A (donations are increasing) to point B (money controls politicians). You might as well say that the only thing politicians will listen to is votes. (After all, turnout has been increasing!) And that, of course, would be just fine.

Finally, seriously, a boycott? According to the 2008 ANES, about 10 percent of Americans donated to candidates that year. That just has to be a huge overstatement, given how inflated self-reported voting tends to be. So, very few people are even doing this activity that Nocera wants to see boycotted, and those that are are the most committed partisans in the country. This is a "hardheaded and practical" idea?

(h/t Michael Tofias and Hans Noel)

*Just two weeks ago, Tom Friedman was being seduced by the Americans Elect CEO in his "swank offices, finance with some serious hedge-fund money." What is it about wealthy CEOs that makes NYT columnists swoon?


metrichead said...


with the amounts of campaign donations increasing as they are, is there a possibility we could see a "contributions bubble" just like we had a "" and "housing bubble?"

It seems to me that in times like these when a lot of Americans are in a financial pinch, part of our collective belt-tightening would have to include sacrificing how much we give. Am I missing something?

Seth Masket said...

Interesting idea. From what I've seen, campaign spending continues to increase at an impressive rate, way ahead of inflation, and it's immune to economic downturns. I imagine we would have seen a bubble at some point in the past if that was possible in this market, but as far as I know, that hasn't happened.