06 January 2007

Corruption is built into opaque policymaking

It’s sad to see how closely intertwined are the interests of corporations and politicians. ‘Barack Obama Inc’, an article in Harpers of November 2006 by Ken Silverstein mentions some of the compromises necessary under the current system for even the best-intentioned political movers:
[A]lthough Obama is by no means a mouthpiece for his funders, it appears that he’s not entirely indifferent to their desires either. Consider the case of Illinois-based Exelon Corporation, the nation’s leading nuclear power-plant operator. The firm is Obama’s fourth largest patron, having donated a total of $74,350 to his campaigns. During debate on t 2005 energy bill, Obama helped to vote down an amendment that would have killed vast loan guarantees for power-plant operators to develop new energy projects. The loan guarantees were called “one of the worst provisions in this massive piece of legislation” by Taxpayers for Common Sense and Citizens Against Government Waste….
The problem is with the indirect way we fund our politics. It’s comparable to the obsolescent ways in which tv programmes have been funded under the now-shrinking ‘free to air’ model. Viewers pay either a sort of tax to a state broadcaster, or they watch adverts. Either way, there’s an intermediate step between the public and the programmes they watch. That model is faltering, and perhaps we’d be better off if similarly indirect policymaking disappeared from politics too.
Currently we have a specialised class, politicians, who are funded by corporations or other institutions. Why can’t we cut out the middleman and fund our politics directly? One reason is that the policymaking process is so arcane, so opaque, that only specialists can understand it. Whether this is an inevitable by product of complex economies and societies, or whether there is some patch protection going on by a self-interested and insecure group of professionals, many of whom used to be lawyers, is debatable, but the effect is the same. Ordinary people and their interests shy away from engagement in politics, and that suits the politicians and bureaucrats just fine.

My solution is instead to subordinate politics to outcomes. I believe a Social Policy Bond approach would allocate funds more efficiently than the current system, which is largely driven by the interests of lobbyists and the interests of existing institutions, notably government agencies themselves. But efficiency is only one benefit of a bond regime. Another important one is that, by recasting our politics in terms of meaningful outcomes, we would draw more people into the policymaking process. People understand outcomes: we are less interested in the recondite discussions over funding of the myriad departments of government, or the wording of legal documents, that is such for feature of the current regime. More public participation means more public buy in. These are ends in themselves, as well as a means to more effective and efficient policy.

Mr Silverstein’s article on Barack Obama ends by quoting an anonymous Washington DC lobbyist, who pointed out:
that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a “player”. The lobbyist added: “What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?

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