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May 23, 2007


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Ben Rattray

Thanks for the mention, Phil. I was actually going to email you about this earlier in the day but fell asleep from exhaustion. It's been a long few days.

Personally, I wouldn't be too concerned about where my political donations go as long as they make politicians less likely to heed to the special interest groups they normally respond to. (Well, hookers might be over the line but I think green fees and hair transplants may be within the realm of acceptability. As long as our politicians are relaxed and looking good...)

I realize that this may seem like an odd position to take since our approach on donations to nonprofits is exactly the opposite (i.e. we want to give people control over where their money is given and a sense of the impact it has on the cause they care about). But politics is an odd profession, and what you're really buying when you give bundled donations to political actors is his/her time and attention and reducing their incentive to respond favorably to special interests on the issue(s) you care about. What that elected official then buys with the money you've given is an entirely different question...


I see. We buy their time and attention so they won't have to sell it to someone else. That keeps them honest.


Ben, can you give some examples of how this would work for a good cause? Isn't the point to get the politician's time and attention focused on a well made case for a specific position, and to give the politician the sense that lots of people care about the issue?

Albert Ruesga

You're a master satirist, Phil, so I'd like to believe the post and comments are one elaborate hoax.



Nope. Ben is thoughtful man. I look forward to seeing how he develops the PAC approach. Maybe we could start an online gaming site, and contribute 10% of profits to a virtual PAC. A social venture with a double bottom line: personal profit and political return on investment. Maybe I could get to be the Ambassador to the Netherlands.

Ben Rattray

Happy to give a suggestion of how the virtual PAC would work for a good cause, Phil.

Take, for example, the US Government's efforts in foreign aid. The US Government is the largest provider of direct foreign assistance in the world, spending billions of dollars per year on foodstuffs. However, there's a catch: current law requires that the majority of foodstuffs purchased for international aid be bought from US-based companies. From a foreign assistance standpoint, this is totally irrational and dramatically reduces the positive impact of the assistance, for two reasons: first US-based foodstuffs are significantly more expensive than comparable produce in developing countries, and second, by flooding a developing country with free food purchased by US farmers, the US unintentionally depresses food prices in the recipient country, therefore putting many farmers out of work and exacerbating the very problem they're trying to solve (which in many cases is famine).

The reason we continue to pursue this clearly counterproductive policy? The US Farm Lobby, which spends millions of dollars a year ensuring that no congressmen propose to change the status quo, which yields them billions of dollars a year in revenue. The way this influence is wielded is not that they buy elections, but that they buy acquiescence to the status quo. For example, say I’m a moderate congressperson with no real constituency of farmers in my district, and I think the state of affairs described above is ridiculous (i.e. that I am sane). My natural inclination might be to propose a law to end this requirement. The problem is that if I do, the Farm Lobby will spend $50,000 in attack ads against me in the next election. On the other hand, if I simply ignore the issue, no commensurately bad thing will happen, at least in political terms (no incumbent is ever going to lose a primary campaign because they didn’t fight for the lives of poor Africans).

These are perverse incentives, and the reason why this harmful law and many others contrary to the public interest persist.

What I'm proposing we do is change these incentives. Specifically, I’d suggest that anyone who cares about this issue create a virtual PAC on change.org dedicated to giving targeted donations to candidates that propose to end this requirement, which could offset the negative impact of the attack ads that the Farm Lobby will inevitably spend against them in the upcoming election. This virtual PAC might also make the commitment to support any other co-sponsors of the legislation who are similarly attacked by the Farm Lobby, therefore changing their calculation of the costs and benefits of supporting the legislation and making it much easier for representatives to support a bill that they may be naturally inclined to back in the first place (even though they wouldn’t stick their neck out for it if it meant incurring the wrath of the Farm Lobby with no counterbalancing support).

The next question is, what sort of money would it take for this to happen? The answer is remarkably little. Although the Farm Lobby spends millions of dollars a year on supporting and opposing candidates, much of this money is not given directly to candidates because of campaign finance restrictions (legally incorporated PACs can give a maximum of only $5000 per candidate). Money given directly to campaigns has much more influence per dollar, and this is something that a loose network of people can do in ways that legally incorporated PACs cannot. While PACs can only give $5000 to a candidate, individuals can give up to $2300 each, so if they bundle them through our new system, they can have orders of magnitude more impact than a traditional PAC.

Now, few people are going to give $2300 in contributions. But I think that if you could get 10,000 people to dedicate $100 each to supporting candidates that would commit to co-sponsor and advocate for legislation to end the restriction that aid dollars be spent on US-based products, you could significantly change incentives and make politicians much more willing to support a change in this status quo. The consequence would be to free up billions of dollars for international aid and dramatically increase support for farmers and local businesses in developing nations. All with about $1 million in strategically targeted political donations.

So, if you care about international aid, one way to go about it is to give $100 to CARE. And millions of people do this every year to no doubt good effect. But if you could get a fraction of those people to realize that their impact might actually be greater through political donations and were able to start something like the grassroots PAC I described above, you might be able to free up many times CARE’s annual budget in additional assistance at a fraction of the cost.

Whew. Sorry for such a long response. I hope that makes sense, and am naturally interested in what you (and your readers) think. There are similar stories that can be told for dozens of issues from global warming to international health, but I think I’ve exhausted enough virtual ink for the time being.




This is really cool. Phil is being serious and satirical all at the same time. That Ben is here and responding suggests that the point of the satire is not lost on him, which we all know is a very good thing. Perhaps good things will come of it.

Giving politicians money isn't the only way to get them to act in the people's interest, maybe we want to satirize the whole process of buying the time and attention of public servants. What would it look like for a pooled donation at change.org to fund such efforts and bending public knowledge and the actions of politicians?


So, Ben, how would it actually work? How do you translate the interests of 10,000 small donors into a unified message to the Congressperson? I don't think people want to just lobby one issue, but a cluster of related issues. Say foreign aid, and ending our deployment in Iraq, or global environmental issues. We don't want this to be a one-shot thing, but to enable an ongoing conversation from the people to their representatives.


Farmers could use your system to increase their PAC efforts? So we have an arms war, in effect? I guess my question is do we have to play by the old dirty rules? Can we use the tools you are creating to create a counter-force to the current game of store-bought, or rigged, democracy?

Ludovic Blain

If politics are lost on you, let the folks play the game who know it. Until we have campaign finance reform, progressives need to play the money game as well. Why do you consistently suggest that progressives should opt out of politics? Should we continue to bring good policies to elected officials owned by the right? Or should we play the games we need to in order to elect our own, shift the political terrain, and change the rules of the game.

If only the right limited it's options like you suggest.

Phil Cubeta

Ludovic, to save an ideal in principle by betraying it in practice, and to say that everyone does it is to capitulate in advance. Your strategy fails in the Machiavellian realm by arousing disgust among those whose money, time, votes, and talent you solicit. You lose twice over, first in principle, then in practice. You might rethink your strategy. A shrewder Machiavel would frame his progressive discourse around ideals, as the Right does around Christ. To be so nakedly Machiavellian, so candid about it, is self-defeating. You would do better to either be idealistic or pretend that you are.

Still, you do a public service in unwittingly dramatizing the habitat in which you move and the frames of mind that prevail there.

If I invest $100 with you for political return what does that buy me? Will it fix a parking ticket? Give me access to my elected representative? Allow me to dump my garbage on my neighbor's lawn? What will you give me worth more than $100 if I invest my $100 with you?

Or is this more like a shakedown? I get a tiny taste of democracy, just a taste, until I can afford to invest with the Rappaports in the millions? Then I can be a full citizen too? Is that the deal you are pushing?

If you disdain democracy as unrealistic in today's political climate, what is your assessment of a realistic alternative? Oligarchy? Plutocracy? Am I investing to help you accomplish that or prevent that?

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