The secret donation booth | Bleader

Friday, December 23, 2011

The secret donation booth

Posted By on 12.23.11 at 01:00 PM

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  • Marc Nozell (marcn)
"President Obama Richly Deserves To Be Dumped" declared the headline of an essay in the Providence Journal last week—an essay written not by Glenn Beck, but by John R. MacArthur, the steadfast liberal publisher of the steadfast liberal magazine, Harper's.

Chief among MacArthur's complaints was that Obama, like so many before him, had sold his soul to his big political donors. The president's "principal occupation is shaking down bankers and brokers for campaign donations on the Upper East Side of Manhattan," MacArthur wrote. "By now it should be obvious that the system, and the Democratic Party, run Obama, not the other way around."

As disappointing as he's been to many who fervently supported him, the problem isn't Obama. "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" proves true more often than not, because systems are more powerful than individuals. To their credit, the Occupy Wall Street protesters haven't been hollering for yet another new savior. What's needed, they understand, is systemic change.

At the heart of our political system is a campaign financing scheme that allows corporations and the rich to buy and control government. Change that, and candidates who sound progressive may actually stay progressive once elected.

Just tinkering with campaign financing won't solve this problem. More transparency and greater spending limits aren't enough. Nor is upending Citizens United, even if that could happen. The ills of campaign financing long predated that ruling. The changes must be radical and creative.

That's why the "secret donation booth" merits your attention. I mentioned it last week in a story I wrote about Mayor Rahm Emanuel's PAC. Ian Ayres, a Yale law professor, and Jeremy Bulow, a Stanford economics professor, introduced the concept in 1998, and it's been getting more attention lately.

In the secret donation booth plan, donors can give as much as they please, but contributions over $200 go into a blind trust operated by the Federal Elections Commission for each candidate. The FEC informs candidates how much they've received so they know how much they can spend—but the FEC doesn't disclose the donors. Donors also have five days to rescind their contributions, so even if they tell a candidate they gave and show him their canceled checks, the candidate won't know for sure. That uncertainty, Ayres and Bulow maintain, would greatly disrupt influence peddling.

In a 2003 book about the donation booth, Voting with Dollars, Ayres and co-author Bruce Ackerman drew an analogy between campaign financing and voting. Before the secret ballot was introduced in the 1800s, voters "cast their ballots in full view of the contesting parties, who carefully monitored each decision"—and vote-buying was commonplace. "No voter could receive his election day turkey without casting his ballot before the watchful eyes of the turkey's provider," the authors noted. "It was the secret ballot, not some sudden burst of civic virtue, that transformed the situation."

You can read the secret donation booth idea in its original form here. There are skeptics who find it hard to believe that big contributions could be kept anonymous. But the secret donation booth has prominent supporters. In his new book Republic, Lost, Harvard professor Larry Lessig says he thinks contributions could indeed be kept anonymous, and that the concept should be tried.

New ideas always meet resistance. But is change we can believe in more likely to come from innovative thinking, or from plopping another messiah in the same hidebound system?

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