: New: Book Report: Republic, Lost

When Solyndra was falling apart, Republicans were screaming: these green companies were just boondoggles, false fronts to scoop up government money. It's easy to dismiss their complaints as a bunch of climate-change-denial. But of course, it's also possible that climate change is happening and some cynical political insiders are using it as a pretext for political payoffs. At least, that's what it looks like when you find out that Wade Randlett, democratic fundraiser who sold America the "new economy" and set Silicon Valley back a few years, now runs Enagra, a renewable energy company. Why funnel government funds to fundraisers? Is fundraising so important? If you're a politician, isn't it enough to promise to follow your consituency's wishes?

You hear about what fraction of their time some modern USA politician spends on fundraising, and it sets off alarm bells in your head. Does the president of the USA have nothing better to do than fly to my city, disrupt air and road traffic, ... than to have dinner with some billionaires to raise funds? He keeps coming around, so he must think that's a sensible thing to do, a better thing to do than, y'know, governing the country. At some point, he has a choice between doing something great and raising money to pay for advertising to let the world know that he's done something great. Again and again, he chooses to go for the money. And that's an educated choice: he knows that's the surest path to reelection under our political rules.

Republic, Lost explores those rules. How did we end up in a world in which campaign finances are so important? Other countries run on under-the-table bribes; we have overt campaign payments—politicians don't even get to enjoy their payoffs, they turn the money around and hand it to advertisers. A legislator who champions, say, womens' rights can expect to get more campaign donations from polluters than her environmentalist opponent will. Since money-raising is so important in the current system, she's more likely to get elected. Eventually, you end up with lawmakers who are inclined to leave moneyed interests be—except that it's useful to introduce legislation that pits those interests against each other, inspiring both sides to donate more.

It's pretty bleak; pretty discouraging.

There are some ideas on how we might dig ourselves out. How do you enact campaign finance reform? You need to set it up so that legislators who have thrived in the current scheme won't just reject it. This book has some ideas. Some come from above, some come from below; we probably need to come at it from both sides. For example, candidates who accept spending limits these days are taking a real risk; they're taking a stand against corruption, but if their opponents don't and can put more funds into attack ads... the anti-corruption folks won't get elected. The Rootstrikers organization works on some interesting bottoms-up ways around this dilemma. For example, you can pledge to support campaign finance reform. If a politician finds out that a sizable fraction of local voters supports the pledge, then she has some confidence she can keep to a spending limit and that voters will respect her stance.

It's pretty bleak, but with some hope.

Tags: book politics choice priorities brutal truth

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