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Interesting, but frustratingly flawed
on September 15, 2012
I was very excited to read this book. I'd heard good things about it, and was delighted to see a book about campaign finance made for a general audience.
Unfortunately, I can't recommend this book. In fact, I was surprised by how much I disliked it, given that I'm very much on board with Lessig's core cause of reforming campaign finance.
Here were some of my issues:
* The author's writing style is so unusual that it can distract from the substance of the text. The single most annoying Lessigism is the pervasive use of the word "souls" to mean people, as in "any sane soul would," "pathologically stupid souls," "an alarm for free-market souls," etc. Is this a book on campaign finance or a headline about a maritime disaster? Nobody talks like this, and running into this usage breaks the flow of the text. There are other awkward stylistic choices made throughout the book, like the phrases "Congress is broken, because corrupted" or "It is the stuff of modern life, to be managed, not condemned, because if condemned, ignored."
* About the first 75% of the book tries to explain to the reader why they should care about campaign finance, but treats the reader as if they were a hostile skeptic. Maybe I'm just not in the target audience, but...I already knew campaign finance was a problem! That's why I'm reading the book. I don't need dozens of pages of text to convince me. To me, this made the book seem way too long, despite its totally reasonable page count.
* I wanted to learn a lot more about how current campaign finance law works. When I read in a newspaper that "Bigcorp has donated $45 million to a candidate," I still don't know exactly what that means. Does that mean Bigcorp gave to a candidate's PAC? Is that just the total of the contributions of all of Bigcorp's employees, including people who may have no feeling about policy toward Bigcorp? Or, is that what lobbyists have bundled together? How does a SuperPAC differ from a regular PAC? What exactly did the Citizens United ruling change? I wanted a more systematic treatment of how campaign finance currently works. I didn't get this. I wanted to know the history of campaign finance reform and what rules have survived the ongoing attempts to dismantle them. I didn't get that either.
* Lessig has an annoying habit of tediously and repetitively reminding readers that he's not saying that money directly gets results but merely that money creates the _appearance_ of impropriety. Similar wording on this point is repeated countless times throughout the text, to the point where I was rolling my eyes every time I read it. It's interesting that the author is so tentative and careful about whether or not to directly link money to policy in parts of this book, yet later claims that campaign finance is such a problem that it justifies his ultimate goal, which is, um, to rewrite the Constitution (see below)
* The author talks about making political donations anonymous, which is something I've long thought could make a difference - how can you do a favor for someone if you have no idea if they've followed through on their promise to contribute? But Lessig presents this as little more than a straw man and dismisses the idea. Lessig's conception of anonymous contributions involves a system where donations are made public, but the donor can later revoke the contribution. I guess the theory is that you never know if a donation actually went through or was revoked immediately afterward? This is an incredibly weird way to do anonymous donations (first objection: they're not anonymous!). If you wanted to treat the issue seriously, you could get an anonymous donation system by empowering a federal agency to collect contributions, monitor per-person spending limits and then anonymously transfer the money to candidates. Does that have its own problems? Sure! But it's an actual anonymous contribution solution, unlike Lessig's strange straw man.
* In the part of the book on solutions, Lessig proposes a system where everyone chooses to allocate $50 of their federal taxes to a candidate or political party. In addition to that, they're allowed to donate up to $100 a year of their own money to candidates and parties. So, my first objection here is that you do your taxes in April, and elections are in November. What's the workaround for that? This would also do nothing to curb "independent" expenditures, like ads funded by SuperPAC's. There are two reasons Lessig proposes this idea:
1. He makes the good point that public financing of elections has the unfortunate side effect that your tax dollars may go to support a candidate you find truly distasteful. By giving people a choice on their tax forms of where their money will go, that problem is eliminated. This makes sense to me.
2. Lessig believes that this system can get past the Supreme Court, because it requires a candidate to choose (all or nothing) between the existing system of campaign of finance and this new system, and is therefore not a mandatory restriction. Lessig argues that the amount of money available through his quasi-public financing system will be so great that candidates will choose it over having to raise funds the old-fashioned way. Yet, just pages earlier, Lessig explains that he thinks the Supreme Court was ideologically motivated to misapply the Constitution in the Citizens United case. If Lessig believes the problem is that the Supreme Court will misinterpret the Constitution when it sees fit, how can Lessig be sure that his view of the Constitutionality of this plan will be accepted by a Court that, as even he admits, has a pre-existing agenda against campaign finance? In fact, during the health care case, the Court struck down a voluntary Medicaid grant that it considered "coercive" because the amount of money was so large that no one could turn it down - why couldn't the Court use the same reasoning here to strike down Lessig's plan? Lessig doesn't address it.
* There is no serious treatment of straightforward public financing of elections. Lessig raises a great objection to it, which is that your tax dollars could go to some very disagreeable candidates, but that's it. I think this solution deserves at least a few pages of analysis.
* One of the proposed solutions is to run a presidential candidate who promises to veto all legislation passed by Congress until campaign finance reform is enacted, at which point they'll resign the presidency. Um.
* The finale of the book is a multi-page call for a Constitutional Convention - Lessig believes that we should freely tinker with the Constitution in order to address the problem of campaign finance. This is such an outrageously extreme solution that I couldn't believe what I was reading. He casually admits that people might support changes like a balanced-budget amendment or an anti-abortion amendment, without taking the time to go through whether that would be good or bad for the country - he includes it merely in a spirit of showing that all sides of the political spectrum can contribute ideas to the amended Constitution, without attempting to adjudicate whether life under these new Constitutional provisions would be good or bad. He also naively believes that nothing too untoward could be included in the Constitution because so many states would have to ratify it. It's ironic that someone who studies the workings of Congress doesn't see the near-exact analog to Congressional riders, where small, unpopular provisions are added to documents that are long and otherwise broadly supported. Lessig says earlier in the book that he believes campaign finance got truly out of hand after the 1994 elections, when Republicans took over Congress for the first time in decades. This, he argues, suddenly made races intensely more competitive, because Republicans had tasted victory and Democrats had tasted the embarrassment of minority status. If that's true, then we've been dealing with our insane campaign finance arms race for just shy of twenty years. Does Lessig really think that 240 years of experience with this Constitution needs to go out the window for such a recent development? Reading this section of the book, I felt cheated. The rest of the book did not, in any way, justify this radical solution, nor did I think I was buying a book about rewriting the Constitution. I thought I was getting a book on how campaign finance works and how it might be fixed...
On the other hand:
* The chapter on how political science research misses the corrupting influence of money is very good. Lessig mentions several statistical analyses by political scientists showing that campaign contributions had no effect on how a member of Congress voted for an issue, but then refutes these by astutely pointing out that money's influence is felt well before the final roll call vote takes place. Money is applied at the committee level to keep bills from being proposed, money is applied to committee chairman to keep certain topics from coming up for a vote, but most importantly, the mere presence of huge pools of private money (even in the absence of an actual contribution) frightens members of Congress into taking positions that will get them money or that will prevent their opponents from receiving donations (if a candidate knows that Exxon will help candidates who oppose climate change legislation, that candidate may decide not to support climate change regulation, either out of a desire to raise more money or out of a desire to prevent their opponents from getting that Exxon money - even if he or she never takes money from Exxon)
* Lessig emphasizes that, aside from the policy distortions created by corrupt financing of campaigns, the knowledge that the democratic process is so widely subverted leads to a debilitating lack of confidence in public institutions and voter participation. This isn't a point emphasized very often, and I think it's important.
On balance, I can't recommend reading this whole book. The two points in my "On the other hand" section could have been turned into a really great article and that would've been just as rewarding as getting through this.