David R. Henderson  

Question for Bill Bradley

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Bill Bradley.jpeg

Update below:
I attended George Shultz's 95th birthday party at the Hoover Institution last night. George is nothing if not ecumenical, which is one of his best qualities. So George was the one who invited former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley to give the main before-dinner speech. On domestic policy, I didn't agree with almost anything Bradley said. On foreign policy, I was glad he said a lot of what he did and I think that particular audience needed to hear it: he said that Bill Clinton made a huge mistake in expanding NATO to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary after "we" won the Cold War.

One of the things that I particularly disagreed with was Bradley's view on campaign finance reform. He went after the Buckey v. Valeo decision in the 1970s and the more-recent Citizens United decision, and argued that "money isn't speech." He then called for government financing of campaigns.

I decided that if there were Q&A afterwards (there usually isn't at such events), I would ask him about government financing. I thought to take on the "money isn't speech" issue by asking "is paper speech?" Can the New York Times put out a print edition without paper? But I decided instead, given the audience and their likely veneration of many of the Founding Fathers, to quote the famous Thomas Jefferson line about such measures. I found it on my iPhone and, sure enough, Bradley said that either Stanford president John Hennessey or George (I've forgotten which) had asked him to take a question or two. So I stood up and stuck my hand way in the air.

Bradley called on me and I fumbled for the Jefferson quote on my iPhone, gave up, and did it by memory. Here's what I said, although I'm plugging in the actual Jefferson line because he said it better:

Senator, first I agree with you strongly that it was a very big blunder to expand NATO. Second, you advocated government funding of elections, which means that taxpayers would be forced to pay for elections. Here's what Thomas Jefferson said about such measures: "To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical." So, Senator, why do you disagree with Thomas Jefferson?

He didn't answer my question but he did give a half-decent answer. He argued that $2 billion in government for elections was small potatoes compared to the $1 trillion in special tax breaks that politicians would be more likely to get rid of if campaigns were government-funded. I think he's wrong empirically, but it was not a bad shot. Incidentally, John Hennessey, who was still on stage, nodded his head vigorously when Bradley answered.

In finding the Jefferson quote, I see that there's more controversy about it than I had thought, with many people claiming, somewhat plausibly, that Jefferson had in mind only government funding of religious views. But I wonder if he wouldn't have thought the same of using government funds to finance some close-to-religious views that many politicians espouse.

Knowing that Bradley was an NBA star and probably still an NBA fan, I went over to his table afterward, introduced myself, and asked if we could do a selfie. He grinned, said sure, and pulled my cap down over my forehead. Thus the picture above.

Update: My Hoover colleague John Cochrane emailed me the following comment last night:

Thanks for standing up. I think you missed the better chance: Senator, what do you say to the most common argument, that limiting campaign contributions makes it much easier for incumbents. And by the way, if money is so important why is Jeb Bush at the back of the polls?

I agree with John that this is a better question. Moreover, as I pointed out to him this morning, it's even more devastating a rebuttal of Bradley than it appears. Why? Because Bradley's argument is about how big money is given by various people to keep tax loopholes. And Jeb Bush raised big money while putting forward a plan to reduce tax loopholes. See the problem?

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
zeke5123 writes:

Good post Dr. Henderson.

The one thing I've never understood about the argument in favor of campaign finance reform is that somehow regulating campaign spending reduces money in politics. The big money in politics occurs afterwards, when industry hires Congressmen to a cushy, lucrative job. Maybe campaign contributions act as signaling, but I imagine there are other methods to signal that don't run afoul of bribery laws.

Dan Walker writes:

When feeling a wee bit mischievous, I enjoy asking "campaign finance reform" advocates if they would join me in radically removing money and undue influence from the election process by -- getting out of elections entirely, and filling formerly elective positions with some form of sortition (lottery). No more need for money, campaign commercials, the perpetual donation-seeking, etc.; truly, by mere luck of the draw, a barista would have the same statistical shot at sitting in Congress as a button-down attorney with the "right connections."

Oddly, the ardor for "getting money out of politics" by said almost all of said campaign-finance reform advocates then typically diminishes quickly.

LD Bottorff writes:

Thank you for standing up for free speech. I am reluctant to get into political discussions, but I'm a sucker for speaking up in favor of free speech. Controlling the money going into elections will never prevent politicians from buying votes with policy or spending.

Now, the Justice Department is shaking down corporations for donations to their favorite causes: http://www.wsj.com/articles/justices-liberal-slush-fund-1449188273 (subscription probably required).
It is not clear to me how campaign finance reform will prevent this sort of corruption.

Brad writes:

Senator Bradley wants to severely limit campaign contributions because, ostensibly, money corrupts politics. Ha. I wonder if he would support similar limitations on incumbent Senators and Congressmen who spend taxpayer dollars on pet projects that benefit their districts (buying votes). At least when I donate to a campaign, I do so freely.

Ostap writes:

I thought economists understood that life is all about trade-offs. Two truths:

1. Restricting campaign contributions violates freedom of speech, action, etc. That's a bad thing.

2. Campaign contributions contribute to corruption. How could they not? Does anyone really believe that the typical politician will not do favors for people and corporations that give his campaign money? Or that there are not many people and corporations who will only donate money to campaigns in return for favors?

James Hanley writes:

I don't support public funding of campaigns, but I'll note what my undergrad mentor (a Republican, who worked in the Ford White House) said: "Campaigns are the public's business, so the public ought to pay for them."

It's a point that I think bears pondering (and I say that as a guy who regularly critiques people who misuse the term "public goods").

As to the effects of public financing, I think they're not as great as either hoped or feared. The primary reason challengers need more money is to gain more name recognition. If challengers did not have to spend as much time on fund raising they'll shift their efforts to more direct face-to-face "retail campaigning." There's already evidence that this is the case, drawn from some states that use public funding.

To use a sport analogy, it doesn't necessarily make it harder for the underdog to win, it just changes the strategies they need to employ (just like adding the shot clock and three-point line in basketball did).

I would also add that the incumbency advantage is already so strong that if public funding has any effect it's probably only at the margin. Part of the incumbents' advantage is that they can often build up such big war chests that it deters potential qualified challengers from entering the race. That's an explicit strategy of incumbents, not just a side-effect, and it would be eliminated by public funding.

I think another thing that would limit the effects of public funding is that we're in an era of era of large scale independent spending. The effects of that might--I don't have evidence, this is speculative--dward any pro-incumbency effects of public funding.

Dan Miller writes:

Surely the need to raise significant sums of money (most likely from very wealthy people) determines who even decides to run? The failure of any particular candidate to catch fire (i.e. Bush) doesn't mean that the field wasn't shaped in advance by only allowing as competitors those who are equipped to raise millions.

Nathan W writes:

"Jeb Bush raised big money while putting forward a plan to reduce tax loopholes. See the problem? "

But Jeb Bush plans to reduce the overall tax load on people who take advantage of those loopholes enormously.

I like the Canadian approach, which bans both corporate and union donations and limits personal donations to $5000 per year.

Alex writes:

If you regulate political speech, who enforces it?
Who decides what is political speech?
Could this blog be considered political speech?
How about the NY times?

Kurt Schuler writes:

NATO was established to keep in check the two countries that had caused the most trouble in Europe in the 20th century, Germany and the Soviet Union. It succeeded so well that Germany is pacific and the Soviet Union collapsed. Leaving aside the countries admitted to NATO later, what was the specific argument against admitting Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, none of which even shares a border with Russia except Poland's border with the Kaliningrad exclave?

Jesse C writes:

@Nathan W: I agree that if you limit corporate donations, you ought to limit unions similarly.

Limiting personal donations to $5000 seems like it gives a clear advantage to those in the upper class. I think if you're going to limit individual donations, you ought to limit them to something reasonably small enough to be reasonable for the average sub-median income person to give - say, $150. This is much more fair. Further, I'd account for volunteer time the same way I account for money. Account for each hour of volunteer time as if the volunteer is donating minimum wage, and then cap it at the individual max.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Kurt Schuler,
Are you asking me what Bradley’s argument was or what mine is?

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