2010/06/21 Buz Mills and Clean Elections

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Buz Mills wants to violate citizens' choice for clean election contributions

I received in the mail today an advertisement from Buz Mills's Arizona Governor campaign, and this part of the brochure caught my eye:

image:Buz-clean-elections.png

And I got to thinking, where did that money come from? From this part of the 140 income tax form, of course:

image:Clean-elections.png‎

Notice how it's a voluntary gift? Alongside various kinds of political and charitable contributions that you can make on your tax form. So enough people believe in this Clean Election Fund that there is $32 million available for campaigns, and he wants to just grab that money and re-use it for general budgetary obligations, and further he wants us to feel good about that? What is he thinking?!?!

Personally I've never given money to that fund because I'm not so naive as to think that throwing money in the right direction will give us clean elections. But I respect the wishes of those who have given their money to it, and Buz apparently does not. He just sees some low-hanging fruit, apparently.

Besides, the existence of the Clean Elections Fund is due to a ballot initiative. Arizonans put it on the ballot, Arizonans (narrowly) voted for it, then Arizonans contributed their own money, and now he thinks it can be used to pay for something else.

Here's some more debunking of related false statements from Buz. If his campaign is that sleazy, watch out... he's learned how to be a politician even without the years of political experience he's accusing his opponents of having too much of.

Clean elections funding in general

So apparently the theory is that people who want to run for public office and aren't already rich, or don't succeed in getting a lot of big-money backing, should still be able to run competitive campaigns. If you squint just right it sortof makes sense. It's a little strange that first, to qualify, such people have to collect a quota of small contributions ($5 each typically) then they must abruptly stop taking those contributions in order to qualify for the public money. But actually it's not regular public money, it's just a special fund consisting of voluntary contributions. The rules are strange. Wouldn't it be equivalent to have a non-government non-profit org which collects and distributes the campaign funds? It would probably be less successful in comparison to the ease of diverting part of your income tax refund to the state CE fund, I guess. But it would be a "fairer" way to achieve the same goal.

The tax credit provided if you have made a contribution is an Arizona tax revenue loss. But at least it's on equal footing with other political and charitable contributions. On the other hand the federal presidential campaign fund seems to be a double whammy, because if you check the box to give $3 to that, two things happen: your tax is reduced by $3 and the government sets aside an additional $3 to the campaign fund. (Unless I'm misunderstanding something.)

Anyway, wikipedia says it doesn't seem to be an effective way to increase fairness of the elections, in practice. This reminds me of the proverb that the best leaders are not those who seek power but those who are thrust into it by popular acclaim (yes it's a paraphrase). Our way of doing elections rewards those who want the position enough to spend a lot of money on campaigning (regardless where the money came from, the same type of go-getter people are doing the campaigning). So we're biased towards people who have ulterior motives rather than true public servants. Campaign reform as we've known it doesn't even touch that issue.

Another thing: we're living in the age of the Internet, in which I can communicate with any of my friends, or write up a web page accessible to anyone in the world (and wonder whether it will get noticed or not), at zero incremental cost (I just have to be connected). Yet politicians still think they need to spend millions on dead-tree advertisements and TV spots. And the tax credit for political contributions serves as an incentive to provide them the money to do it, too. It's so inefficient and obsolete. Maybe the next generation will make better use of grassroots campaigns. Even better, we need to think up a way to use the Internet to thrust smarter people into power rather than allowing power-hungry people to grab it.

It has been pointed out that the clean elections fund provided an inroad for government to usurp the speech of the individual, because when a candidate chooses to use money from it, there are strings attached: at this point in time, once a candidate has accepted CEF funding, the candidate has not been allowed to transition back to private funding. And of course, a candidate funded by CEF would tend to speak with more amplification (money to advertise far and wide) than a candidate who was not rich, did not use CEF and did not have corporate backing either. Over time CEF was bound to become corrupt, assuming it's possible for administrators to attach even more strings to that funding. Maybe eventually CEF would be controlling the message too: you can be funded only if you do not say certain things. It's not clear to me if such manipulation ever occurred, just that it seems within the realm of possibility. So it's quite right to be suspicious of turning government into a self-supporting closed-loop system: the government could end up generating its own future from its own funding, just as a monarch names his own successor.

Another larger issue is the general ability of corporations to act as "people". There are two sides to this argument which I can relate to: one is that a corporation is just a collection of people, and the rights of the people to express themselves (1st amendment et al.) must not be infringed just because those people choose to act collectively. But I feel more strongly that in practice, a corporation has its own agenda, in conflict with what its constituents would want as individuals. The people may have a conscience but the corporation does not: the bottom line, the ability to profit, is the overriding agenda. The clean elections fund, as flawed as it is, was supposed to provide an alternative to corporate-financed election campaigns. I think a lot of evil has come from treating corporations as people. If a person wants to support a particular candidate he is free to do so as an individual. If he is the CEO of a corporation, he still retains his own personal free speech rights. That does not relate to the idea that the corporation should be doing the speaking instead, because the corporation and the CEO of the corporation may easily have different views about the same issues and the same politicians. But which has more power? If the corporation has a political action fund, that money properly spent on lobbying or advertising is going to speak much louder than the CEO can personally speak. But the trend in this country is that corporations are being treated as people, so we are increasingly controlled more by their profit motive than by matters of conscience. That is a loss, just as much as excessive government power comes at the expense of the people's collective power as individuals thinking their own individual thoughts. I think one is as bad as the other, in the end. The government can coerce everyone to the extent that the law allows (and it's always changing), but a corporation has much more power to coerce its own employees (which can be a quite substantial number, effectively monopolizing all political power in certain communities), and additionally the corporation speaks with great amplification when there is a lot of money involved.

Yet another point is that political candidates' success hinges more on their contact with individual people than on money. Maybe it's true to an extent but I still think that money talks. It's very common for individuals to feel disenfranchised because their votes are such a small drop in the bucket. It's also easy to manipulate voters when you spend enough money to convince them of things they would otherwise not believe. Buz Mills' campaign is an example of just such an attempt. It appears that ultimately it's not going to succeed - maybe for once someone has overestimated the stupidity of Americans, or maybe there are other reasons why Buz has dropped out of the race. But for me this point has become the linchpin: I will not vote for a politician who so openly tries to manipulate me in the way he has tried to do.

Now that the Supreme Court has blocked Arizona's Clean Elections fund though (seems they consider it unconstitutional), I wonder what they think is supposed to happen to that money?!? Wanna bet it won't be diverted to other random obligations? By all rights it should be given back to those who made the contributions, or else given to a replacement, neutral campaign-finance organization. I really doubt it will be though. Everybody's corrupt. It will be entertaining to see whether that develops into a scandal this time around or just gets swept under the rug.

Conclusion

The whole Clean Election thing makes about as much sense as Daylight Saving Time (at least Arizona has spared us that one). Hopefully it disappears off next year's tax forms because $32m sure is a lot of money to be unsure what to do with... those optimistic souls who contributed aren't getting what they thought they were from it, in any case.

Corporations should not be treated as people. It has been and continues to be a big mistake.

And 'nuff said about Buz.

If you disagree, or have better ideas how to fix it, send me email or twitter @ec1oud.

Postscript about the gubernatorial race

I think I've decided to vote for Brewer because of the following cool, freedom-restoring things she has accomplished, which for the moment have me feeling at least as proud to be an Arizonan as to be an American:

  • Concealed carry is legal (restricting this always was unconstitutional, IMO) (yes it's scary that more people could be armed without you knowing, but the old argument applies: the outlaws never cared about the law anyway. The only difference is it's easier to defend yourself now. And this is still the Wild West to an extent... it's to be expected.)
  • Fireworks are legal (that may prove problematic in such a fire-prone place as this, and granted it's a small issue, but let's deal with the problems rather than taking away the rights of the people)
  • She seems to have gotten rid of the state-operated RedFlex cameras, at least for now. Let's hope this trend is expanded. I'm not sure if we have a consistent picture yet. The dang things are still in use in some cities, so this is a small step to just get us back to the situation we had a couple years ago. She should have gotten them outlawed outright, I think.

I think I still disagree about SB1070 but I guess I can concede that one for election purposes because 70% of Arizonans are in favor of it, after all. For what it's worth, I share the concerns others have expressed that

  • Police have better things to do than take over part of Border Patrol's job
  • Racial profiling is ugly and infringes people's rights. As a white guy I'm not worried, but I'd hate to be an Arizona-born hispanic person and have to deal with that. It's kindof like being black and trying to live in Mesa: cops are liable to pull you over and ask what you are doing there just because of your looks. I worked with another software engineer who had that happen to him, in 1999. He was rightfully pissed off. And you know what? If we white folks don't stick up for everyone's rights, including the minorities, our day will come too. We won't be the majority forever in this state.
  • If we would just get marijuana legalized, most of this problem would go away on its own. Maybe the cartels would just regroup and concentrate on cocaine or something, but at least the total size of their business would be much smaller if we could grow our own marijuana for free in our own backyards. We'd still have illegal immigrants but we have been getting along fine with them for a really long time: the problem is the violence, and the incentive to get weed into this country by hook or crook, simply because the price is artificially boosted so high by the "war on drugs." Hey Jan are you listening? Got any political capital left to take on the feds on this one?
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