Will Citizen’s United lead to public campaign finance?

One of the side-show issues on the union-busting efforts here in Wisconsin is the effect of Koch Industries’ money on local politics, and how Citizen’s United ties into the a greater effort defund the democratic party and allow republicans to get the upper hand.

The theory is that allowing corporations unlimited investment in political campaigns, while handicapping unions (the main contributors on the democratic side) will leave the republican party and corporations standing on top and ruling the nation. It’s a scary picture, and I’m not a fan of Citizen’s United, but I’m not sure it’s the slam dunk people think it is.

The first thing is the assumption that all corporations are on the same side. They’re not. Here are some issues where there is big money on both sides:

Infrastructure investment. On one side you have half the population, construction companies, equipment manufacturers, folks who want increased efficiency and don’t like collapsing bridges. On the other side you have “No spending ever!” republicans, folks who are sick of government waste and want lower taxes, and those who don’t use much infrastructure.

E15 – that is, raising the limit on ethanol blending to 15% (or higher) from 10%. One one side you have consumers, car makers, oil companies and on the other you have corn growers, some equipment manufacturers, ethanol distillers, and people who want to reduce dependency on foreign oil.

Internet sales tax. On one side you have Amazon, Buy.com, Ebay and other large etailers, along with “all taxes are all bad” republicans, and consumers who like the 5-8% discount on their internet purchases. On the other side you have the rest of the republicans, democrats, the rest of the retail industry, and consumers who want their state budgets fed a little more cash.

So you can see that the decision where to send corporate money might be complex, and we haven’t even touched on local issues. Some companies already donate to both parties, but even so, I expect that competition will increase political contributions. The reason for this is that as the more active corporate contributors (like Koch Industries) increase their investment they will pull in corporations that didn’t get involved earlier because threat wasn’t great enough before.

Competition between corporations will lead to increased investment. Heck, just the specter of being able to buy politicians legally will lead to greater investment across the board, and so far some of our new republican governors are showing this to be simpler than one might have thought.

Increased investment will lead to media saturation – there’s only so many eyeballs – and media will become less effective. How many complaints about political ads do you hear? And it’s going to get worse.

Increased saturation will lead to increased prices, as supply remains fixed but demand climbs. Regular advertisers will want to advertise too, and I expect media to take advantage.

This will be (and already is being) exascerbated by poorly mandated legislation spilling over into smaller races, recall efforts, referendums, and other mid-term activities. We’re getting ads here on the recall efforts, on both sides. Political advertising will become more of a 24/7 thing that will make it even less effective.

Increased prices along with lower effectiveness means lower a lower return on investment. Now, we can’t always count on corporations to do the right thing, but we can count on them to manage ROI and dump initiatives when their numbers get bad enough.

This is all very expensive for corporations, and the main purpose of most corporations isn’t lobbying. The decision to invest in politics likely starts at the top, and leaders don’t like to be embarassed or “jump the shark”, as they say. As the ROI decreases, and leaders are burned by these bad investments and shareholders start grumbling I believe there will be backlash.

How will that backlash come? Well, they’re not going to want to give up any advantage, but they’re going to want everyone to spend less. They might decide to manage it themselves, but I’m betting they’ll be going to congress and asking them to make a law. We’ll see ads about how political spending is draining America and keeping us from competing in the global market, and we need to fix this now.

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