No Mr. Brooks, follow the money


David Brooks

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David Brooks is a sensible conservative; he writes for the New York Times, which means he gets written off as some sort of centrist by those on the Far Right, but I appreciate the way he approaches the complex issues of our time.  Brooks ponders the philosophical meaning of our problems, and strives for well thought analysis instead of trite ideological rants.  I always enjoy his columns, even those I disagree with.  Today, he argued that criticism of campaign spending is overblown, because money just doesn’t influence elections as much as people assume.

First of all, Brooks points out that based on a few studies, Democrats in competitive races are outspending Republicans.  He then examines polling showing Republican advantages in many races, and concludes that the money spent had no effect.  Brooks argues that independent group spending is only a 10th of political party spending, and that there is no way to prove that independent spending is more effective than party spending.  Finally, he argues that people do not respond to the din of political advertising.  Speaking about the Colorado Senate contest between Michael Bennett and Ken Buck, where there have been 5,358 pro-democratic ads and 4,928 pro-Republican ads, Brooks writes that “This isn’t persuasive; it’s mind-numbing. No wonder voters tune it all out. Amid this onslaught, there is no way a slightly richer ad campaign is going to make much difference.”

On his last point, Brooks is both right and wrong.  On one hand, people do not respond to marketing like they used to, political marketing included.  With the spread of smartphones, even our formerly quiet parks are now forums for messaging.  We have ready access to e-mail and other media, at every moment.  We are saturated.  On the other hand, because of the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, corporations can again open the spigot of campaign spending.

The Center for Responsive Politics, the same group that Brooks quotes, reports that as a result of the Citizens United case, there is record spending by independent groups in this Midterm Election.  Unprecedented spending, and despite the Supreme Court insisting that corporations must disclose their political spending, this does not mean that the ad must make that support clear.  Instead, innocent sounding fronts called Citizens for a Better America or Minnesota Forward collect the corporate cash and hide its source from the American public.  Of course, you hear similar complaints from Republicans over Union spending.  Citizens United only served to make the political waters murkier, rather than more transparent.  Brooks views the effect of this new spending as insignificant:

“In the end, however, money is a talisman. It makes people feel good because they think it has magical properties. It probably helps in local legislative races where name recognition is low. It probably helps challengers get established. But these days, federal races are oversaturated. Every federal candidate in a close race has plenty of money and the marginal utility of each new dollar is zero.  In this day and age, money is almost never the difference between victory and defeat. It’s just the primitive mythology of the political class.”

Brooks is naive here.  People should know where the money comes from.  Voters should know what special interests the candidates are supported by, and which candidates their businesses support.  Voters should be able to use that information to decide whether they want to continue to support that business.  Voters should know when businesses write legislation that is blindly adopted by candidates the businesses supported in previous elections.  Voters should understand the complexity behind the significant problems we face.

There is one way to level the playing field: federal financing of election spending.  That levels the playing field and leaves the ideas and promises of the respective political parties as the only currency.  Of course, voter education will be a tough nut to crack. The political system aims for the lowest common denominator; voters are conditioned to listen on that level.  We should celebrate citizen involvement in elections, in the day to day grind of political life.  Citizens should participate in their Democracy, not only during exciting elections, but every day.  It can start at the community level, with citizens more actively engaged in the decisions their elected representatives make on their behalf.  In the end, it comes down to participation and engagement.

Regulatory capture and the question of government

Today it is very fashionable in some circles to blame the federal government for all of our ills.  In that line of thinking, free markets would thrive if we could only loosen the grip of federal and state interference.  Freed from the grasp of interference, Adam Smith’s invisible hand would encourage the good and punish the bad actors, and create a utopian market based society.  Unfortunately, in today’s globalized world, where mega-corporations exercise more power than most states, that view is also naïve.

Critics would say that the government should only do what they claim it is good at, law enforcement and highway paving, and leave all other activities to the free market.  Unfortunately, these fundamentalist capitalists do not understand the true power of mega corporations today.  It is not simply a question of whether a corporation is a person, as the Supreme Court reaffirmed in the Citizens United decision.  It is a matter of super agency.  A close look at the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is very illuminating, although the recent bank crisis also offers a raft of evidence to spark concern about unchecked power.

A report today in the Sunday Times shows just how far regulatory capture penetrated the various federal agencies responsible for oversight of offshore oil drilling.  Now, just to be clear, critics of the federal government claim that the federal government, if it would only abstain from providing education, regulating health insurance, and other tasks which they deem it to be inefficient, would as a result become outstanding guardians of offshore drilling.  The outstanding reporting of the Times shows otherwise.  It shows that British Petroleum, and the other oil companies, in a market that is not free, but rather amounts to an oligopoly, flexed their political and economic power to write the laws and staff the agencies which would regulate it:

‘“The pace of technology has definitely outrun the regulations,” Lt. Cmdr. Michael Odom of the Coast Guard, at a hearing last month… As a result, deepwater rigs operate under an ad hoc system of exceptions. The deeper the water, the further the exceptions stretch, not just from federal guidelines but also often from company policy.’

When BP set its sights on Mississippi Canyon Block 252, they asked for relaxations from numerous federal regulations, knowing they would receive approval.  They received exemption from a federally mandated environmental review, and from the federal requirement for the blowout preventer valve to be tested at a mandated pressure.  They used equipment that violated even company policy, because the rig was 45 days behind schedule, and BP was paying an expensive lease to TransOcean throughout the delays.  Why did the Minerals Management Service go along with this egregious behavior?  Interior Secretary Ken Salazar knows:

‘The Minerals Management Service, which regulates offshore drilling, went along with these requests partly because the agency has for years had a dual role of both fostering and policing the industry — collecting royalty payments from the drilling companies while also levying fines on them for violations of law.  Its safety inspections usually consist of helicopter visits to offshore rigs to sift through company reports of self-administered tests.  Even Ken Salazar, the interior secretary, who oversees the minerals agency, has said that oil companies have a history of “running the show” at the agency, a problem he has vowed to correct.’

Now that Salazar, and the residents of Louisiana and Florida can plainly see the regulatory capture at work and at fault, will they be able to correct it?  Turning to the banking industry, with all of the influence that Citibank and Goldman Sachs wield, did you think that the impending banking regulation would truly go against their wishes, even after the collapse of the global economy?  What about the tragic explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia?  Sure, America has already largely forgotten that disaster, in which 29 miners died.  Unfortunately, as Arianna Huffington points out, the Mine Safety and Health Administration was similarly captured by Massey Energy and Big Coal:

‘Former Massey COO Stanley Suboleski was appointed to be a commissioner of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission in 2003 and four years later he was nominated to run the Office of Fossil Energy in the Energy Department. Today, he’s back on Massey’s board. And Massey exec Richard Stickler was made the head of MSHA by President Bush in 2006. Talk about hiring the foxes to guard the hen house.  Massey has also mastered the D.C. art of buying friends in high places. Back in 2000, Massey was responsible for a coal slurry spill in Kentucky that was three times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill. The company very successfully limited the damage — not to the environment, but to its bottom line. Once Elaine Chao, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell’s wife, became Secretary of Labor, which oversees the MSHA, she, according to Jack Spadaro, an MSHA engineer investigating the spill, put on the brakes. Two years later, Massey was assessed a slap-on-the-wrist $5,600 fine. The same year, Massey’s PAC donated $100,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which was chaired by McConnell. And Massey’s CEO Don Blankenship has personally donated millions to the campaigns of judges and politicians.’

To those denizens of the Tea Party and Libertarians who hunger for the diminishment of the federal government, be careful what you wish for.  BP was concerned only with its bottom line, not that of the residents of Louisiana.  Regulation is gamed today; in the utopia imagined by some critics, there would simply be no checks on mega-corporations like BP.  Their bottom line would be the only bottom line.  Citizens United was only the beginning.