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Ezra Klein on corruption in US politics
March 3, 2012 11:14 PM   Subscribe

Our Corrupt Politics: It’s Not All Money. Ezra Klein on corruption in US politics. The key mistake most people make when they look at Washington—and the key misconception that characters like Abramoff would lead you to—is seeing Washington as a cash economy. It’s a gift economy. That’s why firms divert money into paying lobbyists rather than spending every dollar on campaign contributions. Campaign contributions are part of the cash economy. Lobbyists are hired because they understand how to participate in the gift economy.
posted by russilwvong (36 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
The gift that keeps on getting.
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:56 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Bill. Noun. 1. A statement of money owed for goods or services supplied. 2. A form or draft of a proposed statute presented to a legislature.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:25 AM on March 4, 2012 [12 favorites]


His conclusion is interesting. I suppose the implication might be that the media is worse than the money? With politics as a reality show, and the media desperate to keep up the drama between the parties, nothing ends up getting done because legislators are more concerned with working that paradigm to get reelected?
posted by palidor at 12:25 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


So Washington is like....Burning Man?
posted by telstar at 12:28 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


For the moneyed interests, pretty much.
posted by crapmatic at 12:42 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, basically, I think what he's saying is that everyone likes to have friends. And lobbyists are good at making friends. And corporations find those that have beliefs similar to their own (or who can convincingly fake it), and are thus willing to pay for them to mostly hang out in Washington and be friends with politicians, and offer 'expert help' when needed, like writing legislation for busy Senators.

This is why Washington is so completely disconnected, because ordinary folks can't afford to provide friends for politicians, so that our views, and the things we think are important, don't get into the halls of power.

Corporations own Washington, not because they provide heaps of cash to election campaigns, but because they provide golfing buddies.
posted by Malor at 1:19 AM on March 4, 2012 [17 favorites]


And the gifts are, if anything, better than the cash. Because the gifts do more than the cash. If someone walks up to you with a bag full of money and asks you to vote to make coal companies more profitable, that’s not a very persuasive argument. Even if you take the money, you’re going to feel dirty the next day.

Leaving money on the bedside table makes me feel like a dirty whore; give me diamonds and gold and I'll feel like I'm just getting the pampering that I deserve.
posted by leftcoastbob at 1:51 AM on March 4, 2012 [19 favorites]


"It is a perfect mixture of ideological comradeship, financial perks, and personal affinity. But it is the sense of comradeship and affinity that makes the whole thing work."

Sooo... in practice, how is this any different than Stockholm syndrome?
posted by markkraft at 1:58 AM on March 4, 2012


I guess I'm just not sure how the promise of a job after public service finishes is a gift rather than a bribe deferred.
posted by jaduncan at 2:50 AM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Jaduncan: The article says that there's a psychological difference between taking a bribe and accepting a gift from a friend. It isn't the prospect of future employment which compromises the public servant; they're compromised by the artificially-contrived friendship which makes accepting a job with the lobbyist seem like a reasonable thing to do. The point of hiring lobbyists is that they know how to build the sort of relationships which let you make offers like that.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:07 AM on March 4, 2012


Sure. It's just obviously a disingenuous difference, and the fact that this is so is very obvious from the fact that politicians in other periods wouldn't have associated so closely with the industries that they regulate.

I'm considering standing for office in the UK, and I guess I'm in agreement with that school of thought; I wouldn't let anyone write my legislation, and I wouldn't be in social or fundraising contact with the industries that I am responsible for being impartial about. Democracy is serious business, and selling out the public trust in return for social contacts and a job afterwards is quite appalling to me.
posted by jaduncan at 3:15 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Politicians shouldn't be close friends with the people with an interest in their decisions, in the same way that a judge should recluse themselves from a case involving people they know well.
posted by jaduncan at 3:16 AM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


This doesn't mean the friendships are false. People do have opinions that match the corporations they work for. Many of the relationships are probably perfectly authentic.

Basically, the US government has become a clique, and We The People are on the outside.
posted by Malor at 3:28 AM on March 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


This doesn't mean the friendships are false.

Sure. Just unethical.
posted by jaduncan at 3:29 AM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm sure american politicians will come around to seeing the error in their ways, return their bribes and gifts and take care of the problems of the american people.

You're not gonna have to eat them at all. No siree.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 4:02 AM on March 4, 2012


Washington Post Reporter, Ezra Klein.

That said, I'm sure what he's saying seems really true on the surface. It's all about personal friendships more then anything. But DC is full of people who excel at making personal connections. And the way to make good personal connections is to make connections to people who are also seem well connected themselves and want to make introductions.

Take for example, Heather Podesta, Ezra Klen's employer ran this article in august of 2009, she's the wife of the brother of John Podesta, who helped run Obama's transition team and founded the Center for American Progress, who also used to employ Ezra Klein. Now, if you look at the date on the WaPo article, it was right in the middle of the healthcare debate, and Heather Podesta apparently told the reporter:
In this Summer of the Lobbyist, Heather Podesta hits each of the big three. She's got health-care clients such as insurance giants Cigna and HealthSouth, drugmaker Eli Lilly and the breast cancer group Susan G. Komen for the Cure; financial powerhouses such as Prudential and Swiss Reinsurance Co.; and energy outfits such as Marathon Oil, the major utility Southern Co. and Climate Masters, a geothermal heating firm.
Anyway, this isn't to knock Ezra Klien or John Podesta (but you can consider it a knock on Heather). The point is, influential people in DC make money on their influence.

And there is another effect. Since influential, well connected people in DC can make money by being lobbyists, and since people want to make connections and get to know people, a good way to do that is to suck up to lobbyists. That's true of anyone in DC. Lobyists or "consultants" like Newt Gingrich or Chris Dodd or Tom Daschle who take massive amounts of cash to peddle that influence, without registering as "lobbyists". Think about some new Dem congressperson. Aren't they going to be super psyched to talk to Chris Dodd or Tom Dashel, or the Sister-in-law of John Podesta? Or on the republican side, Newt Gingrich (the guy is a hero to them. Or was before this election. :P)

And But money gets you into that system. Barack Obama didn't become friends with Steve Jobs because he wanted someone to help him with his iPad. Politicians (now more so then ever) need money to engage in politics. So if someone can bring in campaign contributions, then they'll quickly become well connected themselves. Whereas without money, it would be really, really difficult.

So you end up with a couple of different feedback effects. 1) The current batch of rich and powerful decide who they befriend and who they of course are going to pick people that are like them. That can obviously work in any direction though. But you have the other problem where once people become influential they then have the opportunity to cash in and gain even more influence for themselves. Those cashing in also have a much greater incentive to reach out and allow themselves to make new connections with people who are not currently but want to become major players.

That said, let me read the article...
--

Okay, this is is just crazy. I've known about it for a while, but I don't know how many people do:
As Lessig writes, the typical lobbyist today plays an important, even crucial, part in the political system. In addition to providing campaign contributions and employment prospects to outgoing elected officials and their staffs, he or she provides legislative expertise. Political scientists call this “the legislative subsidy” model of lobbying, and it poses a serious challenge to the view that lobbyists are little more than parasites.
Think about that for a moment, a "legislative subsidy". As if, somehow the U.S congress, which is making laws affecting trillions of dollars can't afford to do the research it needs to to write laws, so they hadn the task over to interested parties, and call it a subsidy? They don't realize that lobbyists are paid because it's profitable to pay them, and that if lobbyists are writing laws for them then they are making money writing those laws? Do they think it's just a gift? Seriously. It's mind-boggling
The numbers are even more impressive when you sort the spending by industry. Health care comes in at number one, with more than $4.87 billion in spending. .... Health care industries likely spend so much money lobbying because Congress spends so much time debating health care legislation—like 2010’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—rather than the other way around. But $4.86 billion buys you a lot of legislative subsidy. It gives you an opportunity to shape the way members of Congress think—an opportunity that is not available to those who don’t have $4.86 billion to spend on lobbying.
Yeah, keep in mind that one draft of the new Healthcare law had the name Liz Fowler in the 'author' field of the PDF's meta data. She'd also been a VP in charge of "public affairs" -- meaning lobbying -- at Wellpoint.

I definitely agree with him here:
There are two separate points being made here. One is that the rise of money is behind the decline in trust in government. The other is that money empowers ideologues and alienates the middle. Neither claim stands up to scrutiny.

Nor is it clear that more money leads to more power for “the extremists at both ends.” For one thing, the timing doesn’t work. Polarization begins to accelerate in the 1980s, not the 1990s. For another, it simply seems unlikely. If you’re talking about lobbying, or fund-raising, the money is with the corporations. But the biggest employers of lobbyists—the Chamber of Commerce, GE, the American Medical Association, the National Association of Realtors—aren’t interested in endless partisan warfare, and they’re not, themselves, run by hard-core partisans, such as the Koch brothers. America’s corporate class tends toward a kind of elite centrism: they like compromise, and deficit reduction, and technocratic problem solvers. Michael Bloomberg—who has proposed letting all of the Bush tax cuts expire—would win these guys in a landslide. Jim DeMint and Bernie Sanders wouldn’t have a chance of getting their votes.
Exactly. As I say all the time, the most corrupt politicians are always the most "Centrist" because they care the most about money, as opposed to what people might call "Ideology" or "Principle" (depending on how you feel about their positions)

A highly principled politician would be less likely to take a bribe, but they'd also be less likely to give up on their core belief that life begins at conception -- or in single payer healthcare (or bust).

Joe Lieberman is the ultimate "centrist"

In my view, "centrism" is just the ideology of the incumbents. I don't mean incumbent politicians but rather "people who are already there", the people who are already making money off the status quo. "Centrists" don't want to find a mix of policies from the radical right and the radical left and make radical changes in both directions they want to keep things the same, which obviously continues to benefit the people who are currently benefiting.
Conversely, small donors, particularly on the congressional level, tend to be more ideological types. There’s good evidence that legislators who make extreme statements have an easier time fund-raising than those who don’t. When House Republican Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during President Obama’s health care address, he raised $2 million in under a week. The thing about the “sensible middle” is that they, quite sensibly, don’t spend all that much of their time following congressional races, or even politics. So politicians looking for small donors need to find the engaged, invested voters who are actually interested in primary campaigns, and those voters are usually so engaged and invested because they have chosen a side, and done so strongly.
This is also probably true. A small donor only system would mean the dictatorship of the online political junkies. Who are rarely centrists. It's the people posting comments on RedState or DailyKos or /r/politics. The people who can make money online are the people who can fire up the base. Klien mentioned Joe Wilson, but Alan Grayson (or Anthony Wiener) are examples of beloved loudmouths on the right.

I think I did a pretty good job predicting what he would say (it's about personal connections, not hard cold cash) but ultimately cash is what gets everything rolling. The billions spent on lobbying every year forms the glue that holds the 'social network' together. Money gets you in the door. Money makes well connected people stay connected.

---

It's hard to figure out a solution that doesn't involve placing restrictions on free speech. But I've always thought that politicians should be paid a lot more. For two reasons. We should want the best and brightest wanting to work for DC on it's own merits. It would be better if a smart kid wanted to be a senator or congressman just for the salary and not to make connections to make more money down the road.

You might even want to get more extreme and say that 1) Every congressperson gets a high salary and 2) They either aren't allowed to have any contact with any of their former colleagues while out of office, or anyone who has contact with them But probably just one degree of separation would be sufficient or else they can't accept gifts or payment from anyone, for any reason.

We should also be spending way more money on research and staffers, so that congresspeople don't need a "legislative subsidy" provided by people trying to make a profit off doing so. (Seriously the "legislative subsidy" thing just blows my mind.
posted by delmoi at 4:04 AM on March 4, 2012 [11 favorites]


If these people need a friend why not buy 'em a dog?
posted by rough ashlar at 4:44 AM on March 4, 2012


Like Chesterton posited that "too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists," I think half of our problem may be that we have too few lobbyists -- that more of *us* aren't lobbyists. Or to put it in personal terms, that I haven't been inside the offices of a Senator or Rep for 10 years -- I write the occasional letter, sign the occasional petition, usually vote in the general election, and as I've gotten older I'm more attentive about primaries and I make small campaign contributions too.

But I don't *really* lobby. And when only people who lobby are those who do it professionally, we're going to find that those who hire professionals are the only ones getting significant representation.

I wonder if it might be different if periodically, we met up in small groups of 10-100, talked about a few issues we cared about, how we thought things should be done, picked someone go visit with congressional staff about the issues and bring back what said staff had to say. And then lather, rinse, and repeat once every few weeks.
posted by weston at 6:00 AM on March 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


But I've always thought that politicians should be paid a lot more.

Would that really make much difference though? It's not as though we could pay them enough to make them capable of bankrolling a modern election campaign out of pocket. And it wouldn't really change the golf-buddy dynamic described here at all.
posted by yoink at 6:16 AM on March 4, 2012


If these people need a friend why not buy 'em a dog?

It's already been tried.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:17 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


the naif reviews the high ivory tower lawyer (and the sly crook): Ezra Klein isn't old enough or self-aware enough to understand how this country works and Lawrence Lessig lives at too high an altitude to see much of anything. it's amazing he/they take anything abramoff says at face value.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:29 AM on March 4, 2012


Politicians shouldn't be close friends with the people with an interest in their decisions,

But in a democracy, everyone has an interest in politician's decisions. It's not as if you get given one specific portfolio ("you'll be in charge of votes pertaining to the coal industry") and can then scrupulously avoid getting to chummy with the people involved in that portfolio.

The process is more insidious than you make it sound and it's not easily addressed by simply saying "well, I'M going to be morally upright!" If you're writing legislation to regulate the Widget industry you actually better damn well be talking deep into the night with representatives of that industry--not because you're trying to shake them down for a job but because you're going to write crappy legislation if you don't understand the industry you're trying to regulate. And of course the industry will hire representatives who are good at putting the best possible spin on what they do and its importance to the nation's economy etc. etc. And they will also be good at being friendly. I imagine its usually very hard to say when the line has been crossed from "friendly guy is being friendly" to "friendly guy is buying influence."
posted by yoink at 6:29 AM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why choose between gifts and money when you can give both?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:45 AM on March 4, 2012


The process is more insidious than you make it sound and it's not easily addressed by simply saying "well, I'M going to be morally upright!" If you're writing legislation to regulate the Widget industry you actually better damn well be talking deep into the night with representatives of that industry--not because you're trying to shake them down for a job but because you're going to write crappy legislation if you don't understand the industry you're trying to regulate.

It has historically been addressed by getting deep in minuted, listed meetings. Not by letting the industry write the legislation after talks on the golf course.

Again, this isn't a new issue. Do you think judges don't get deep in court cases? They just get deep with people who they maintain a professional distance from, in a forum where the representations they have received are public so impartiality and the appearance of impartiality may be maintained. This also protects the decision maker, and means that equal access can be demonstrated. The process of befriending someone and then using those back channels for extra access is problematic at best.
posted by jaduncan at 6:53 AM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


First, interesting timewarp: that article is dated March 22, 2012, but in my timeline, I'm on March 4.

Second, Klein says
Which isn’t to say that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to get the money out of politics, or to publicly finance elections, or, as Abramoff suggests, to make it impossible for onetime public servants to lobby. But it’s not clear that any set of campaign finance reforms or anti-lobbyist regulations would restore trust in government or ratchet down partisan polarization. Such policies, if they worked, would likely have more modest effects: a bit more trust in government, maybe, and a bit less of a reliance on lobbyists, hopefully.

I have to disagree with him that pubic campaign finance wouldn't "ratchet down partisan polarization." The biggest problem that I see as being significantly improved by public financing is the fact that, in the vast majority of congressional and presidential races, the only candidates the voters have to choose from (in any meaningful way, meaning not throwing your vote away) have already been vetted by the wealthy citizens and corporate and social (i.e., AARP) interests. This makes for representative plutocracy, rather than representative democracy, and increases partisan polarization. Public campaign finance with equal access for all qualified candidates creates opportunity for the unconnected candidate to get his or her message out there and compete on more even footing with the incumbents and moneyed interests.
posted by notashroom at 7:03 AM on March 4, 2012


"When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property." - Thomas Jefferson

We have the technology to record the every movement of every federal elected official, every cabinet member, every department head, every registered lobbyist, every executive with every company that receives over $1B per year from the federal government, every federal appellate court judge, and maybe everyone who receives over $150 per year through work for the federal government. Record Everything.

We should eventually move towards public officials not really having any privacy, but for now simply recording everything suffices.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:11 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Would that really make much difference though? It's not as though we could pay them enough to make them capable of bankrolling a modern election campaign out of pocket. And it wouldn't really change the golf-buddy dynamic described here at all.
First of all, of course you can. The math is fairly straightforward. The average house race costs $4.3m every two years, a senate rate $18m every six years. 435 house members 100 and representatives comes out $3m a year for the senate, and $2.15m for the house. to $300 million a year for the senate and 935 million a year (on average) for the house. So $1.235 billion a year (on average). That comes out to 0.0331% of the federal budget. I don't see any reason why we couldn't pay that, or more if it would help the other 99.966% be allocated in a non-corrupt way.

Second of all, you wouldn't want them actually using their salaries to pay for campaigns anyway. That would basically mean incumbent lock-in. The point is, you want them to make enough money so that they don't need to think about what kind of job they'll get after they leave the house or senate. That is the problem.

And it does put a major dent in the buddy-buddy system. Sure, they'll be friends with people, but they won't need to make friends with anyone for money

Right now, senators and congress people spend the majority of their working time. Think about that for a moment. They spend more time raising campaign funds then they do actually running the government. Remove that and you'll have people who actually have a lot more time simply to work on stuff and get it right. And you won't have them trying to become friends with rich and/or lobbyists who can deliver campaign contributions in order to make it easier for them to raise funds, which is currently their primary job responsibility (in terms of what they actually spend their time doing)
posted by delmoi at 7:26 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


It sounds like longer terms might help. Flip the House up to a 4-year term and there will be less need to start fundraising as soon as a Representative's term begins.

Back when the constitution was drafted, it must have been inconceivable that somebody would be able to mount serious intensive fundraising efforts back in their home district during their term of office: stagecoaches maxed out at 4 to 7 mph.
posted by phenylphenol at 7:47 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it's interesting how Klein points out that lobbyists mainly actually spend money and effort NOT trying to sway swing votes on particular issues, but on helping politicians who ALREADY support the lobbyists' point of view. The lobbyists help, with money, knowledge, and relationships, the politicians do what they already agree with, and also coordinate with the lobbyists' allies on particular issues.

Also interesting is the notion that the lobbyists mainly have influence on small issues outside of the public view. On the big issues, they have little influence. Klein mentions the example of the an infrastructure spending bill backed by both the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce and that could not get bipartisan support.

That's because on the bigger, more public issues, the even more powerful dynamic is polarization. Divisiveness rules.
posted by shivohum at 8:06 AM on March 4, 2012


An interesting piece, but I take issue with the claim that "Policy gets driven by the extremists at both ends." I see an extreme right. But I see the whole entity moving steadily to the right. There is one end that is indeed extreme. The other end is moderate, despite the howls of "socialists!" coming from the some quarters of the media. Labeling them as "socialists" no more makes them socialists than labeling them ham sandwiches will make them ham sandwiches.
posted by Dodecadermaldenticles at 8:25 AM on March 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


delmoi: The point is, you want them to make enough money so that they don't need to think about what kind of job they'll get after they leave the house or senate.

I don't see how high salaries will help. Political office isn't a role assumed by citizens taking a sabbatical from their regular occupations. Those days, if they ever existed, are over*. Being a politician is a full time job, so the primary skills of those who are legislators today is politicking. Which means that the post-office career will have to be related to politics i.e. lobbying or consultancy. And for that, it will still be in the interests of incumbents to maintain good relations with prospective employers. Unless they make so much money that they can (and want to) retire immediately after office. Which won't happen unless the salaries are very, very high or they serve many terms, neither of which strikes me as good.

*Bloomberg et al are exceptions.
posted by Gyan at 8:39 AM on March 4, 2012


Basically, the US government has become a clique, and We The People are on the outside.

When is history was this NOT the case?

If anything, 18th century politics were even cliquey-er - then politicians lived literally on who they knew, and the political class were a tiny number of people who all intermarried and socialised together. (Whether in the USA, or the UK or elsewhere).
posted by jb at 8:44 AM on March 4, 2012


I thought it would be fun to run for office under the pretense that I need the job, it pays better than what I am currently doing, has better benefits, and is easy. I don't have to do anything. I just vote the way the people who put me in office want me to. I don't have to have opinions of my own. When people ask me questions on policy my answer will always be, "I'll have to check the polling data or likely voters. If they're not a voter I don't give a rat's ass."

I will also maintain a website where I not only disclose the cool shit I get, but I brag about it. "Heading to Barbados on big Pharma's dime where I expect to get anything embarrassing I do covered up!" "Kick ass! I get to count my per diem toward my income when calculating retirement! In other news I get a fucking per diem, bitches!" "Did you know there's a super secret section of the plane that's even better than first class! They have hookers!" "Got offered a job for when I am done with this one. They say I can work it for four years then rerun for a better government position and they'll back that run and if I don't get elected I can be a lobbyist!"
posted by cjorgensen at 9:20 AM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Do you think judges don't get deep in court cases? They just get deep with people who they maintain a professional distance from, in a forum where the representations they have received are public so impartiality and the appearance of impartiality may be maintained.

Judges are in a completely different position from politicians. It would be improper for a judge to have any discussions at all with people whose case he is trying outside of the courtroom. It would be absurd, however, to suggest that politicians restrict their contacts with lobbyists to public fora. That would mean, for example, that back in the days of DADT, if a gay serviceperson wanted to ask his or her congressperson to vote to end DADT s/he would have to publicly out him/herself in order to make that request.

Right now, senators and congress people spend the majority of their working time. Think about that for a moment. They spend more time raising campaign funds then they do actually running the government.

Yep, they do. And that's true of the multimillionaires in Congress as well as the rest. Nor do the multimillionaires in Congress obviously refuse to participate in the general interest-trading that goes on. I don't see that raising their salary changes anything.
posted by yoink at 9:51 AM on March 4, 2012


A pretty thoughtful piece by Klein.

My experience with policy making suggests we'd have far more, and more influential, lobbyists, not fewer, in a public-financed regime which excluded financial contributions, coordinated interest group "volunteerism", and independent expenditures.

The ebb and flow of tangible support, and the changes in election results to which they contribute, is a massive source of information to the legislative process about where fiscal providers (net taxpayers), fiscal consumers (net tax recipients), regulated and not-yet-regulated industries, consumers who want the protection of regulations, and ideologues of other sorts, all want policy to go.

Who's going to substitute for the learning a Congressman does every day as he dials for dollars and anxiously watches where the unions and the Chamber of Commerce place their bets -- lobbyists, that's who.
posted by MattD at 10:31 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Washington Post Reporter, Ezra Klein.

To my knowledge, Klein has never been billed as a reporter. Officially, he's a columnist, and probably more accurately a professional blogger. That may have little importance to you, but it means he sits on the opinion side rather than the reporting side.

posted by dhartung at 12:43 PM on March 4, 2012


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