What motivates campaign donations? Discussions of campaign finance reform are dominated by a private interest theory, that donations are in trade for favors. Here donations in support of interests besides yours are bad news; they says the candidate has implicitly promised to help those interests at your expense.
"('1) didn't abandon public financing when Obama did; 2) didn't pursue the Rv. Wright angle; 3) ...')*. "
Didn't suggest he supports terrorists? Oh wait...
Brian, I'm not sure it's exactly a *critique* of a candidate; Robin's post doesn't say anything about Obama's policies or character or competence or anything. But it does seem that an unacknowledged purpose of Robin's post, as of several of his political posts, might be to help the Republicans' chances and/or hurt the Democrats'. Though I'd have thought he might have more effective ways of doing that, so perhaps instead we should ask what he's signalling to whom...
Missy: I think McCain handicapped himself there, too. Once Obama turned his back on his promise to use public financing like McCain (something that really stuck in my craw, as much as I generally like Obama), continuing to use public financing was just hurting his chances for no benefit. I wouldn't be surprised if after the election, McCain supporters draw up a list of how McCain sabotaged himself because of confused notions of honor and decency ('1) didn't abandon public financing when Obama did; 2) didn't pursue the Rv. Wright angle; 3) ...')*.
*(It'll be too bad in a sense, since you just know Republican strategists are going to conclude that they didn't go negative or critical enough, and the next campaign is going to be that much more unpleasant to watch.)
Are you suggesting that the latter should be ignored because it's ... how shall I put this? ... "merely a side effect"?
Well, perhaps one might not ignore it, but it should be acknowledged that it's not relevant to the main point of the post.
Really though, I doubt Robin intended the words "to signal private info about candidate quality" to necessarily mean that the public interest theory excluded the tool theory.
Stuart, the alternatives are to accept or reject the private interest theory. Unless some of the other theories you can think of offer good reasons to to limit campaign contributions, rejecting the private interest theory is rejecting campaign finance reform.
Ah, I see; you should have made that point much clearer in your post. The simplest interpretation that I have is that private interest theory is more likely to be correct for large donations. From the point of a politician, too, it is much easier to do a small specific favour that greatly aids one donor, than a large favour that slightly aids lots of small donors at once. Reciprocity, threats, etc... are also much easier for a single large donor.
I'm not entirely sure what "campaign finance reform" means in an american context, but the implications of the above would be that only large donations are a problem - or donations from a large organised class (say, trade unionists) that share similar interests.
The obvious legislative fix would be to rule out large donations (easy to do) and to rule out organised small donations (rather more tricky; the first step would be to forbid mass donation campaigns by organisations other than political parties). No idea what the current legal situation is in the US at the moment (and the second fix has some quite troubling freedom of speech implications).
Brian and g, you don't have to intend to send a signal for a signal to be sent.
Sorry there Robin, but your post clearly says "which says we donate to signal private info about candidate quality", implying that donors were intending to send that signal.
Paul, given your assumptions it seems you should take Obama's rich donors as bad news about Obama.
I would read it that way.
The obvious solution is that people do trade donations for favors if they can, but $2300 isn't nearly enough to buy a favor from a President.
We could count this as a version of 2a, where the "aberration" is that Obama's donors are required to follow campaign finance laws that cap donations at $2300. Or, we could count it as a variation on 1, where we reject the theory that most donations are attempts to buy favors, but still support limits on campaign financing because, in the absence of those limits (which are market-destroying price controls), there will be enough donations-for-favors to be a problem. The non-favor-seeking donors' motivations aren't essential here, but they're probably pretty similar to the motivations of people who donate to other charities & issue groups.
Robin, you very clearly set up signaling as a motive.
You also very clearly described "private interest" as "in trade for favors." There's a world of difference between buying favors and donating to someone who's already planning to benefit your group at the expense of other groups.
Your post really looks like a critique of a candidate disguised as an analysis where the candidate is just a data point. Why contrast Obama and Bush? From what I've heard, in terms of total amount and reliance on small donations, they're near each other and away from everyone else.
The top two fund-raisers are also the top two in small donations. Doesn't that seem a little more significant than which one is slightly more or less than the other?
Simon, this post does (at least) two things: it makes an argument based on signalling, and it makes claims about why people donate to political campaigns. Are you suggesting that the latter should be ignored because it's ... how shall I put this? ... "merely a side effect"?
I expect the Powers That Be will notice for themselves, but just in case: "Missy"'s comments above are not only content-free but also spam.
In Freedomnomics John Lott argued that campaign contributions don't have much effect on the outcome of an election or the behavior of the candidate once in office. It reminded me of your colleague Bryan Caplan's attack on the self-interested rational voter theory, although it occupied only a small portion of his book rather than (as with Bryan) the entire thing.
The post is about signalling; it makes no difference to the argument of the post whether or not the signalling is the primary purpose of donation or merely a side effect.
Simon, what in Roger's comment suggests that he thinks the private interest theory doesn't apply to Obama donors?
I interpreted his comment incorrectly. My apologies.
I had a legal issue, where I was being charged with taking trade secrets and the plaintiff got to see all my hard drives (terabytes of info back to 1993) and after a couple years would specify the secrets I took, at which time I would then have to defend myself. I told the court, this is costly (no one would hire someone with stolen information because they too would be liable, and I could not prove I didn't have such information because I had only a vague idea of what the secret could be--something related to finance). Now, many states have laws that prevent plaintiffs from doing this, because it's pure harassment, and biased towards finding 'something' ex post, a classic fishing expedition, whose cost in process is the desired endgame.
I contacted my state senator and state representative. Not to affect my case, but as this was clearly a bad law in our state, and the federal courts, and many states, had explicit statutes preventing it, I wanted to argue these statutes should exist in our state too, there is no reason not to have these 'good laws' in our state. Both told me, in effect, this was not an issue with any chance of getting through. I have a feeling, if I had given them $2000, they would have been more amenable. After all, somehow such statutes got into other states, and it wasn't out of some greater 'big picture vision' by their legislators.
If I were really rich, I'd be paying regularly, because you will find yourself in court, and you are foolish to think justice is blind.
I like McCain and Palin. But I enjoy the passion of everyone on the site. I just think if McCain had refused public funds he would have a better chance to turn this economy around. Palin would make a great VP. I would love to see that.
Robin, of course a signal can be sent without intention; but "we donate to signal" (which is what you wrote) implies intention. (There are varieties of intention -- see evolutionary psychology, passim -- hence the words "consciously held" in what I wrote.)
If by "public interest" you mean simply "donating to X's campaign because you think X's election will be in the public interest" then, sure, I expect plenty of people do that, but I am unable to see how that is the same thing as "we donate to signal private info about candidate quality".
Similarly, "donations are in trade for favors" is prima facie quite different from "people donate to X's campaign because they think X's election will be in their interest", just as when I buy a book I do so because I think having the book will be useful or pleasing rather than because I think that buying it will make the author's subsequent books fit my tastes better.
Why pose it in such stark terms? Could not different donors in the same dollar range be motivated in different ways? Why do I have to accept or reject either theory at the expense of the other? They both seem likely true to some extent.
And you seem to have confused things further with your comment equating public interest with altruism - where does your original description say that the viewpoints of the people helped is what differentiates public from private interest?
Insofar as I have standing to comment on the American election (I'm Canadian), I say that my option is 2B. Come on, folks! This is a pretty small bullet for Obama supporters to bite.