Tuesday, October 12, 2010

That Town Hall Analogy

A few months ago, while discussing the impact of Citizen's United, I used an analogy (that I stole from a colleague) centered on Norman Rockwell's famous Four Freedoms series. Specifically: imagine a New England town hall meeting. Now, instead of the banker waiting for the mechanic to finish speaking before the banker gets to speak, imagine the room filled--every seat filled--with someone wearing the same colored t-shirt, sponsored by Corporation X, to repeat X's talking points. Now imagine that when you walk up to the town hall meeting, every seat has already been filled by people paid by X and there's a line out the door of people paid by X. That's the potential impact of Citizen's United: the drowning out of all other points of view in a race.

Here's one exhibit: 60 Plus has spent 83 percent as much as Kapanke has spent on his entire campaign.


Colin said...

How does the spending of 60 Plus deprive Kapanke of opportunities to get her message out? Is there no ad space available on both TV and radio? Has every billboard been purchased by the 60 Plus campaign? Are all of the yards filled with signs made by 60 Plus, leaving no room for Kapanke's? Have all the paper supplies been exhausted by the 60 Plus campaign to distribute flyers and mailings, leaving none for Kapanke?

The town hall example only works because there is a small, fixed amount of speech in that small setting. In the real world of a congressional campaign which lasts months the amount of free speech is for all intents and purposes limitless.

Lastly, the town hall example doesn't simply have to be a corporation for it to work. The same could be said about a labor union.

Ben said...

1. Yes, in theory both a corporation and a union could cause a drowning-out or dilutive effect. In practice, however, corporation tend to have many times as much funds as unions--let us compare apples and apples: Exxon Mobil's corporate profits to SEIU's treasury; the one dwarfs the other.

2. 60 Plus is not yet depriving Kapanke of opportunities for speech. The amount of money they are spending, though, is illustrative of the greater point--the idea that this is possible. Speech is not limitless in any practical sense: there are finite minutes of local broadcast advertising and, as you well know--and are a proponent of--these minutes (like billboard space, newspaper advertising space, etc.) are governed by the market. It is possible for someone possessing sufficient quantities of money to not only purchase all or nearly all of the available media within a particular market and to simultaneously price the opposition out of the market.

Finally, the point is not that the worst case scenario--the hyperbolic scenario--has been realized. But, rather, that the negative impact of Citizen's United, is patent and realizable--not prospective and hypothetical as many first imagined. Broader point: this campaign season should seriously challenge the hydraulic theory in campaign finance.

Colin said...

1. Yes, in theory a corporation could outspend a labor union. The reality, however, is that this is unlikely to happen because corporations, unlike labor unions, are not political animals. For example, Target donated $100,000 cash and $50,000 of in-kind contributions to an independent group that ran ads supporting the primary candidacy of Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. MoveOn.org responded by organizing a boycott of Target. Target ceased making any further contributions.

When weighing political contributions, Target must evaluate the response of its customers and stockholders, neither of which is likely to be monolithic in their politics and could produce a backlash against the company.

Also, from a practical perspective, corporate interests tend to be bipartisan. Indeed, Obama received $884,000 from the oil and gas industry during the 2008 campaign and today's WSJ reports that "Business groups have contributed a total of $910.8 million to candidates in this election cycle, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Of that total, about 53% so far has gone to Democrats."

Meanwhile labor unions contribute many tens of millions of dollars to their favored candidates -- almost invariably Democrats -- without any such worry of a boycott or other public pressure.

2. 60 Plus does not at all illustrate your point. They are nowhere near saturating the market for free speech. To purchase all of the advertising space on radio and television in an entire congressional district would require absurd sums of money. Let's say that a 30 second TV spot costs $100, and there are only 25 channels on TV (which, obviously, is lowballing it). Assuming 15 minutes of ad time per hour, to purchase every advertising spot for four weeks would require $50 million -- and that doesn't even take radio into consideration. Then, of course, there are mailings, billboards, yard signs, bumper stickers, websites, rallies, knocking on doors, and any number of other means of getting out the message.

It is frankly ridiculous to think that one person could literally use up all of the available free speech to prevent an opponent from getting their message out.

The alleged negative impact of Citizens United remains almost entirely abstract and theoretical. We are nowhere even remotely close to having all of the speakers bought and paid for vis-a-vis the town hall example.

Ben said...

There are a bunch of things wrong with your response. Time is shot so I'll take on just a few.

1. Your figures. They are necessarily suspect due to Citizen's United. One ramification of that opinion is the dismantling in part of the disclosure framework making it difficult to track where money is coming from and to whom it is going to. Labels like "Democrat" or "Republican" are here of less utility because of entities like American Crossroads which establishes itself as a parallel RNC. This, then, renders the comparison to 2008 of rather little value--the nice thing (from the corporate perspective) about the old campaign finance regime was that corporations were limited in their spending making it more economically to support both sides (in general) because the amount of money contributed was necessarily constrained (which, in turn, means the ability to influence elections generally--not any election particularly--was constrained). With unrestrained spending--the new regime--this calculus no longer applies. Corporation (and Unions) can conceivably give without limit (and influence without limit) elections generally, and more importantly, very particular elections. Finally, while I have been speaking about particular elections in particular districts, you've been speaking about elections generally (with the exception of your Target example) unhelpfully conflating two different levels of conversation. This is distracting and ultimately counterproductive.

2. Literalism. Your penchant for literalism is frustrating. Your intellect belies your seeming inability to differentiate between gross effects and absolute effects. Simply not squelching all alternative or opposition speech is not the same as preserving the field of debate, nor is it a serious response to the question of whether there drowning-out is a real harm. Perhaps this makes more sense to you in rigidly market terms: the barriers of entry to the market place of ideas are being raised exponentially. At any rate, it also ignores the fact that not all speech and not all speakers--despite Citizen's United--are not created equal. Speech is an individual right, it attaches to corporations and unions through the right of association and is (should be) necessarily subordinate to the rights of the individual. Empowering the derivative speech rights of corporate bodies at the expense of individuals is wrong. I would think you, as a civil libertarian, would appreciate that threat and that distinction.

3. You are almost certainly wrong about the hypothetical harm. Time will tell but the amount of spending thus far, as compared to 2006 and 2002 is telling.

Colin said...

1. I'm not sure how important the accuracy for this year's figures are. We know in the past corporations were rather bipartisan in their giving. Is this going to suddenly change? Furthermore, the Target example would seem to indicate that this law isn't the big deal that many are making it out to be. In addition, corporate money is hardly infinite. Every dollar spent on campaigns is a dollar less to pay staff, develop products, engage in marketing, etc.

2. What "barriers to entry" are you talking about? If anything, Citizens United has lowered the barriers by removing restrictions. This really doesn't make sense.

If you want to make the argument that corporations will drown out the opposition, I don't see the point. If someone is doing a better job of getting out their message than me, the solution is for me to increase my speech, not to limit theirs. If you're getting outspent, then raise more money!

As a civil libertarian I am not in the least bit threatened by other people or collections of people exercising their free speech. It does nothing to infringe on my own. What scares me are the people out there who look to limit speech and regulate the quantities in which it is doled out.

3. If your argument is simply that more money is being spent than in 2002 and 2006, I don't understand the logic. Why is money bad? Money enables people to participate in political speech, which to me is a good thing. Considering the vast influence politics has on our lives, I think we need more speech and information about politics, not less.

Lastly, rather than make this an abstract debate, consider that prior to the Citizens United decision, the conduct it allows was already legal in 26 states (for state level races). Did they have government that was anymore corrupt than the others? I am unaware of any research that indicates this is the case. History would seem to support my position.