IREGBULEM: Getting politics out of our money

Politics is a big-money game.

Spending on political campaigns and advocacy has skyrocketed in the past several decades. Almost three years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations and unions could spend unlimited funds for political purposes, paving the way for the emergence of the infamous super PAC. Both President Obama and Gov. Romney spent over a billion dollars each on their respective campaigns. It’s easy to see these astronomical numbers and feel like something is wrong here. Many are convinced that we need to get the money out of politics.

Some of these people seek to fix our supposedly broken democracy through campaign finance laws. They believe limiting the amount of money that individuals, organizations and corporations can spend on political campaigns would limit the relative influence those people and groups have on elections and politicians. However, this is likely misguided. Whether through the use of money or through other means, the rich and powerful will always find ways to influence politics. It seems somewhat naive to think that the influential will suddenly cease trying to influence politics if we simply limit the money they can directly spend on campaigns.

One could even say it’s preferable to have the rich and powerful exert their influence through cash. Money is easier to track — and therefore more transparent — than other means of influencing campaigns and politics. Setting a lower contribution cap would only lead influential groups and individuals to look for other, more covert avenues (like backdoor deals) through which to exert power. They, to some extent, already utilize these kinds of means, but why would we want to encourage even more of this behavior? Limiting cash donations would be an incentive for those with power and access to further exploit these more obscure methods. Furthermore, these techniques are entirely unavailable to the poor and middle class.

Sure, limiting cash donations might help level the playing field within the arena of direct campaign contributions, but it would also widen the gap between the powerful and powerless in the battle for influence through the media and secret deals between major stakeholders and political kingpins.

So what’s left? How else can we decrease the amount of money spent to influence political outcomes?

As long as our politicians have “goodies” to give to the highest bidder, special interest groups and corporations will continue to fight over the spoils of political war through massive spending on lobbying and campaign donations. If we want to end the contest, we need to take away the prize. Goldman Sachs and its employees spent $10 million in 2012 on political contributions and lobbying; clearly, they thought they would get at least $10 million of value from our government for doing so. And, in all honesty, they likely did.

It’s simple economics and human nature. If something is worth $100 to someone, they’ll likely be willing to spend up to $100 to acquire it. Likewise, if our federal government is spending more than a trillion dollars on discretionary spending alone every year and is exerting massive influence over the economy through regulation and other noncash means, it should come as no surprise that the public at large is willing to spend billions to capture some of that value for private interest, as our most recent $4 billion presidential election has shown us.

Instead of trying to get money out of our politics, maybe we should get politics out of our money. Perhaps instead of handing our money over to politicians who will then simply write a law that favors whoever bribed them the most through political donations, we should keep our money and spend it how we want, on what we know is best for us. Federal spending for fiscal year 2012 was 24 percent of U.S. GDP. That means we’ve essentially politicized 24 percent of our economy, and that doesn’t even include the spending of state and local governments. For every four dollars of economic output, one of those dollars gets decided by politicians.

It’s no wonder big money has found its way to politics. As long as our political system is willing to dole out benefits and penalties as politicians see fit, people will be willing to spend large sums to control the flow of spending and regulation coming from the government.

Nnamdi Iregbulem is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at nnamdi.iregbulem@yale.edu .

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