« Memorial | Main | Everything is Stories, you know »

It's perception all the way down

An interesting philosophical matter lies behind a note from Jonathan Bernstein called No Available Fix for Politician Paranoia, mostly coming from a note by Ezra Klein called Did I get the money-and-politics debate all wrong? Mssrs Bernstein and Klein (and Schmidt) note that while money doesn’t win elections, the belief that money wins elections causes people to act as if money wins elections, and these actions are themselves much of the problem that we would have if, indeed, money did win elections.

To clarify: Campaign fund-raising is important but has rapidly diminishing returns. Many—probably most—candidates raise more money than is actually useful in the campaign, and would do almost exactly as well in the election if they raised only four-fifths of what they did raise. Or less. Hard to be sure, but that’s what the scientists say.

On the other hand, the fear of being outspent is a powerful motivator—and I’m not just saying that it seems like it might be a powerful motivator, but that people are seen to act as they would if they were motivated by the fear of being outspent. They spend all their time raising money and hanging around with potential donors. For freshman in Congress, focus is on raising money is how the Boston Globe headlines Tracy Jan’s story, which points out that the DCCC suggests that your United States Representative spend four hours a day fund-raising. Four hours a day. Four hours spent making the case to those constituents (and non-constituents) who have money; four hours a day listening to the concerns of people with money. Even leaving aside the quid-pro-quo possibility, that’s a problem for democratic representation.

So. The problem isn’t that the incumbents need money—the problem is that the incumbents believe that they need money, and act on that belief, and so most of the money wins elections harm actually does happen, even though money does not, on the whole, win elections. There is no problem, but the perception that there is a problem is a problem, so there is a problem. And since the belief that is causing the harmful action is not based on direct observation but on a sort of cultural assimilation, it’s not as if the problem can be solved by simply pointing out the facts of the case.

It’s similar to a thing I used to say about the deficit: the deficit isn’t a problem, but there is a perception that the deficit is a problem, and that perception is a problem even if there isn’t a problem to be perceived. It’s like Oakland: there may be no there there, but they still beat the Giants four to one. Fortunately, the perception of the deficit problem has so far only resulted in poor policy choices such as any Congress might make. It could be worse. The bond vigilantes, too, could be real—or, again, the perception that they are real could lead people to act as if they are real, which would mean acting like bond vigilantes, which would, kinda, make them real, even if they are only doing it out of fear of imaginary real ones. Right?

With the campaign finance issue, it also has a second-level sort of effect, where a non-serious sort of person who declares that much of the money is wasted will not get the backing of the serious-minded folk at the DCCC or the other well-connected networks. Emily’s List, f’r’ex, will not bother giving money (and it’s worth pointing out that early money is like yeast in part because of those diminishing returns and in part because everybody acts as if money wins elections) to somebody who hasn’t shown herself to be a viable candidate by raising money, which, as you know, wins elections. Or doesn’t. Whichever—but the Emily’s List endorsement means more than just money, it means press and persuasion and elite suasion, all of which probably have better returns than the money does. But you need the money to get that stuff, right? Or you’re a fringe candidate.

In fact, money-raising correlates as well as it does to candidate viability because the causality is the other way around. People want to donate to a candidate they think can win, because (a) they don’t want to waste their donation, and (2) they want to feel like a winner. A candidate people think is viable can raise a lot of money, and people think a candidate is viable because she can raise a lot of money, and you can see why these incumbents believe that money wins elections by the time they get to DC.

So. Practically, under all of this, is a different sort of real problem that has very little to do with the raising or spending of money on electoral campaigns. And it’s not the fact that the relatively few people who control most of the wealth in this country have disproportionate influence over politicians through campaign donations. If you somehow made the campaign donation thing null and void, they would still have disproportionate influence because they control most of the wealth in this country. the idea that the famous 1% who own a huge share of the wealth outright and control much of the rest through corporate and financial holdings are somehow not going to have disproportionate influence is… touching.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.