My Reasons To Rally4Sanity: What Causes Elected Officials To Make Bad Decisions

On October 30th 2010, I'm going to Washington D.C to participate in the Rally to Restore Sanity and it seemed the reasonable thing to do to think through my reasons for participating. So, this is the first in a series of posts called "My Reason To Rally4Sanity" where I'll take a look at money in elections and any other topics that seem reasonable.

I've got a theory that most of the issues with our government can be traced back to the way we elect our public officials. It comes down to a matter of their motivation. I think politicians, just like you and me, want to get or keep their jobs, and the way we make them get their jobs causes a conflict between our interests and theirs.

Getting (re)-elected to public office takes a lot of money.  Without ads, which are very expensive, most candidates have no chance at getting elected to federal office, thus they are dependent on big donors to fund their campaigns and therefore to keep their jobs.

Here's the rub: As long as a candidate does things his donors wants, they keep funding his future campaigns, but the moment he or she steps out of line, the donors simply find a new candidate that will do what the largest donors want.

In a system like this you rapidly fill up your elected positions with people that are doing what their donors want and often not what is best for the citizenry or the country. In biology class we called this Natural Selection.

Bad Decision Making

The problem with this cycle of natural selection is that it causes politicians to make bad decisions. Before you get your panties in a bunch wondering if I'm going after Democrats, Republicans or Independents, take a deep breath. I'm going after all of them. You see, it doesn't matter one bit to which party a congressperson belongs. This cancer of needing to raise money to keep their jobs causes all of them to make bad decisions.

So lets take a look at some staggeringly bad decision making.

Bad Decision Making Example #1
Give Me Some Sugar 

cookieI admit, I cried when I learned this from my mentor, but it's true; fruits and vegetables are good for you and processed sugar, not so much. Somehow our government, which gets lots of money form the sugar industry, came to the conclusion that we need to eat more sugar. Check out this short clip describing the story.  It's excerpted from a Larry Lessig lecture on Institutional Corruption.

Seriously, it doesn't get any more cut and dry than this.

Bad Decision Making Example #2
Exempting Used Car Dealers from the Consumer Financial Protection Agency

Yes. This example is as ridiculous as the title sounds. Congress put together a bill (H.R. 3126) to create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  Seems like a good idea in the wake of the economic cataclysm we just went through. Turns out a congressman that get's lots of money from used car dealers added an amendment to exempt used car dealers from the preview of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

Not to bludgeon a stereotype, but if you were making a list of groups from which consumers might need protection wouldn't USED CAR DEALER be pretty high on that list? The bill hasn't passed yet, but it's pretty clear that this congressman votes where his bread is buttered.

Since we're talking about cars, let's take a look at another piece of legislation; the auto bail out.  There seems to be a striking correlation between how people voted and who contributed to their elections.

Screen captured from

The point here is not that the auto bailout was a good or a bad idea. The point is that it appears, rather convincingly, that our elected officials are voting based on who gives them the money they need to keep their jobs.

Bad Decision Making Example #3
What About Privacy?

Remember that FISA 3 part series I wrote about a while back. Turns out it only takes an average of 8k in contributions to get a congressman to change his or her vote on privacy legislation. It doesn't even matter what they're voting on, the point is there's a statistically significant data-set showing that for less than the cost of having a house painted you can get a congressman to change their vote.

Now Lessig (in his full Institutional Corruption lecture) argues that these congressmen and congresswomen could be good people with our country's best interests in mind but the existence of money creates at least the perception of inappropriate influence. While I agree, I tend to look at it from the other side. The likelihood that at least some of our congressmen are not selling their votes to the highest bidder is staggeringly unlikely given the evidence.

My Reason to Rally4Sanity

In my opinion, until we fix this issue, all of the other political debates are effectively moot. This relationship between congressmen needing money to get elected, and large groups providing that money, means congress is motivated to make decisions in favor of their donors. I'm pretty sure when Lincoln talked about a government "Government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people" this isn't what he meant.

Honestly it seems like a pretty bad situation. The only people that can change this are the politicians, and they're not properly motivated. So I'm going to the Rally for Sanity in part to add my voice to those people that want us to fix out election system.

I think a great way to fix this problem is to move to completely public funded elections. Opponents of this idea often complain they don't want the government using any more of their money. I'd argue that without spending this moeny, you're pretty much guaranteed the government is going to spend a lot of your money on things you don't want them to spend it on.

But it's a reasonable debate I'm willing to have, and I'll be in DC on the 30th if you'd like to discuss it.