Michael Kinsley’s column in Time this week is about campaign finance, among other things. I know this not because I read it in the magazine: Curious Capitalist Jr. had a fever Friday and Mrs. CC was out of town, so I didn’t go into the office and therefore do not have a copy. I got to Kinsley’s column instead via Ezra Klein’s blog. Which just struck me as very, you know, 21st century. Anyway, here’s how Kinsley wrapped things up:
The ability to raise money has become an independent test of a candidate’s prospects, completely apart from money’s traditional role as a way to buy things. Candidates raise money not to purchase TV time and hire political consultants. They raise money to prove that they can raise money. All the major candidates have rejected federal subsidies in order to avoid the contribution limits that go with them. This includes McCain, whose name is on McCain-Feingold, the most recent failed attempt to curb money’s role in politics. When the press started reporting that his campaign was in trouble, McCain hired a major corporate lobbyist as his finance chairman. The press approved. This showed that he was serious.
All of this parallels a development in the larger economy. For most people, the point of money is that you can buy things with it. But at the top, where people already can buy whatever they want, the purpose of money is keeping score: making sure that you don’t slip down in the Forbes 400 list.
I have been waiting for the day when how much money a candidate raised would be a major issue in the campaign itself. I thought this might make campaign finance self-regulating: candidates would refrain from raising too much money for fear it would be held against them. Boy, did I get that one backward.
The solution here is so simple: We just have to keep campaign finance data secret. Then candidates would worry far less about how much money they’d raised, and would spend far less time trying to raise it. Hushing up executive pay data would have a similar effect. If nobody outside the board of directors and the head of HR knew how much the CEO was making, there’d be far less keep-up-with-the-Home-Depots upward pressure on pay.
I’m kidding about this, I think. Although when you think about the impact that increased disclosure has had on both campaign spending and executive pay over the past couple of decades, you’ve got to wonder.
Update: My old friend Professor Bainbridge weighs in with the claim that the “keep-up-with-the-Home-Depots upward pressure on pay” I cite is a myth. In Canada, at least.
Update 2: Here’s a link to the Amazon page of the book, Voting for Dollars, that a couple of the commenters mention.