Clash of the Titans LXXV: Money in Politics

March 21, 2008, 10:00 am; posted by
Filed under Debate, Erin, Steve  | 1 Comment

In this corner, supporting less money in politics, is Erin!

And in this corner, opposing limits, is Steve!

I’ll be the first to admit that I am generally less informed than the average high school sophomore about politics, though you might not know it from how animatedly I like to shout at my more conservative friends (either because I perceive more holes in their arguments than those more liberal, or I just like to be argumentative). Writing this clash is largely the result of my foolish and hasty statement of belief that there is too much money in politics. This is based on a deeper idea which I will try, briefly, to explain.

Whether or not spending more money will make a potential presidential candidate more likely to get elected: I’m sure this can be proved and disproved many ways, and has been already. It’s the nature of numbers, the ability to be manipulated. There are always new statistics coming out, to exhibit or ignore one side of the argument or the other.

Whether the president or other politicians make too much money: that is for each person to decide as well. The current congressional salary (2008) is $169,300 per year. The annual salary of the president was increased to $400,000 per year, including a $50,000 expense allowance, and the vice president makes $221,100.

So given the facts that “not just anybody” gets elected to public office (thank goodness!); one must have at least some degree of personal means, influence, and experience to get elected; and that the majority of politicians have families, businesses, and hobbies to support — are these salaries too much? I have heard that every president ever elected took a pay cut when he entered office. So are they being paid too much? I think so.

The bigger idea that I want to address (which I am only in the early stages of thinking through) is that there is too much money in society as a whole.

I am just as a slave to money as the next hapless American college student. I am studying at a college that, by the time I graduate, will have collected in payment for my undergraduate education more than the golden $100,000 that seems to represent a comfortable income for middle class America. So I will have paid — or have promised to pay — what a great deal of middle class families strive to make in a year. Isn’t that too much?

And why do middle class families feel that $100,000 would be a comfortable amount to live on? Property and income tax. Utilities. Groceries. Food. Clothing. Hobbies. Family outings. Transportation. The same things that lower-class and upper-class families spend money on. Isn’t there a simpler way to do all this?

Instead of going to a theme park that costs $60 per person and wastes electricity flinging souls around on aerodynamically sexy roller coasters, why not wade in a river and catch crawfish — or make a game out of clearing brush away from an old campfire-pit, not worrying about how soon it gets done or how well? Why must we take three trips to town each day to cart kids to school, get items for a honey-do list, and pick up a pizza for dinner?

Simplicity is just that: simple. Some might say that it is for the simple-minded, and I will admit that I have said that to myself many times. But when I say that there is too much money in politics, I am lumping politics in with life in general: things could be done a lot simpler and a lot cheaper. Yes, it might require cutting back. Creativity. Sacrifice. But wouldn’t we be the better for it?

I’ll see your bet and I’ll raise you. Not only do I disagree that there’s too much money in politics, I actually believe that there’s not enough.

I’m happy to admit that the money we have in the system now might not be the best money. It might not be used for the best things. It might not be spent for the best reasons. But I’m convinced that it’s impossible to actually get the best of all those things — and any attempt to try is likely to produce even more problems, while unconstitutionally limiting speech. Frankly, the problem isn’t money, or more correctly, the speech that money facilitates. The problem is accountability.

Whenever possible, I like to err on the side of freedom. That’s especially true when it comes to matters of how people can spend money they have earned. Take Mitt Romney, for instance. He received a lot of criticism for spending tens of millions of his own money in an attempt to become the Republican nominee for president. But why? He earned it honestly, in business, through hard work and effort. And although many less affluent candidates sneered that he was trying to “buy the nomination,” the results actually proved that dollars alone do not lead to electoral success.

Yet many remain convinced not only that money is the main key to winning elections, but that there’s something inherently wrong with money in politics. And this opinion, often informed by a confusion of the effects of money and incumbency, has led to a system that drastically limits the way we can spend our money, and what we can say when we do.

Well, call me old-fashioned, friends, but I happen to take the First Amendment at face value. You’ll remember it from high school; it’s the part of our Constitution that states (among other things) that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. When “reformers” prevent me from spending money to espouse a certain view on the political stage, how can they pretend this is anything other than a restraint on speech? How can they defend it in light of the text of the First Amendment?

Maybe you think that the danger of money influencing politics makes these laws a necessary compromise, a proper exception to our First Amendment rights. But I answer you — what speech could possibly be more important to protect from government regulation than that speech which criticizes the government?

I support greater transparency, so we can know who writes the checks before we cast our votes. But the current system is designed to just shut it all down, like we’re a bunch of children, too stupid to understand issues, willing to vote for whichever candidate runs the glossiest ads. Please explain to me — I would love to know! — how we are helped by this convoluted system that prevents a group of Americans from publicly talking about a candidate, favorably or unfavorably, within 60 days of an election, when the information is most relevant.

Presidential candidates in 2004 spent about $661 million in that race. That sounds awfully high, doesn’t it? But it turns out McDonald’s spent $635 million in advertising by itself — back in 2001! General advertising for “cooking products and seasonings” topped $675 million four years before that! And way back in 1998, $720 million was spent on alcohol advertising JUST INSIDE STORES.

I happen to think that the future of our country — the First Amendment — is a little more important than Mrs. Dash and Captain Morgan.



1 Comment to “Clash of the Titans LXXV: Money in Politics”

  1. Steve on March 21st, 2008 10:14 am

    We certainly weren’t talking about the same thing here. I would add that I think the president is still underpaid, and that I don’t want to decrease congressional salaries, because that would make bribes more attractive.

    As far as your larger points, I agree that people are too focused on money. But aside from personal lifestyle choices, there’s virtually nothing we can do about that; the issue implicates basic questions of resource scarcity and the nature of human depravity that can’t be settled through rhetoric.

    Put more simply — there’s always gonna be something to fight about, so there’ll always be people fightin’ about it. Give every middle-class (heck, every lower-class) family a $100,000/year salary, and nothing will change except the number of zeroes in the price of milk. It is the way of this world. We were not made to be satisfied here.

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