Mind Without Borders

“ I resist anything better than my own diversity.”

—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

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Location: Columbus, OH, United States

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Public Campaigns on the Public Airwaves

I just ran across the Our Democracy Our Airwaves Campaign website. The bulk of the enormous and ever-growing amount of money needed to run a successful election campaign in this country (the U.S.) is devoted to television commercials. But the TV spectrum belongs to the public and is licensed to broadcasters by the FCC. Why not make it a condition of the license that they must provide designated amounts of free airtime to candidates for public office? This wouldn't solve everything, but at least in the short term it would reduce the amounts of money needed for political campaigns by orders of magnitude. That would go a long way toward levelling the playing field and bring us much closer to democratic ideals.

Despite their negative image, I think there are many politicians who don't enjoy having to spend so much time fundraising and would rather have more time for public service; more significantly, I think there are many corporations who would rather not have to spend so much money on campaign contributions and would rather spend it on better serving their customers. There's only one player that benefits from the situation as it stands: the broadcast media. See the Columbia Journalism Review article Media Money for a review of how lobbying by media corporations and their trade associations quashed this reform, which Bill Clinton had proposed in 1998.

But even if we take cynicism to the extreme, media money should not have been able to quash this reform. It's not plausible that the media has more money than all the other corporate interests put together. If those other corporate interests spent their money lobbying for this reform, then even in the most cynical view, it would have gone through. This would reduce their costs for all their future political lobbying by large factors, which would be an enormous net gain for them. If we also assume as above that politicians would rather decrease the size of campaign budgets (an assumption requiring a bit less cynicism), then the other corporate interests would not even have to match the media lobby in order to carry through the reform.

So why then did this happen? I can think of a few reasons:

  1. No individual politician wants to be the one to offend the media lobby.

  2. Incumbents fear that this would significantly erode their advantage.

  3. Neither the corporate interests nor the politicians are used to thinking at this strategic level. They may be very adept at the game of campaign contributions, but the considerations above require thinking about the meta-game: the possibility of changing the rules of the game. They're too caught up in the game as it's played now. Thus the corporate interests and the politicians perceive this as a media issue and not as an issue affecting each of them.

Regarding the first point, if we look at what actually happened, term-limited Bill Clinton had already stepped forward as the one to take this risk. Legislators then actively stepped forward to quash the FCC. If they had just passively let it go through, none of them could have been singled out for blame. So this alone is insufficient to explain it. Regarding the second point, incumbents had an advantage even before the advent of radio and TV. They know the corporate lobbyists personally, and the corporate interests see them as known quantities with predictable behavior. So this would also be insufficient to stop the reform, if the weight of all the other corporate interests were behind it.

That leaves the third point. Thus, out of this exercise in extreme cynicism comes a ray of hope for our republic: if the parties concerned can simply be brought to see what's in their own self-interest, we can bring about this change, and begin a return to the democratic ideal of candidates competing freely in the marketplace of ideas to represent the voters' viewpoints.

Update February 25th, 2016: So much has changed since I wrote this post, it almost seems quaint.  Yet what David Frum wrote yesterday in The Atlantic reminds me a bit of my thinking in that long ago era:

Like all human beings, multimillionaires have finite funds and infinite possibilities to expend those funds. Some must regard the local hospital or the homeless shelter or the city opera or their alma mater as more deserving causes than the ambitions of this politician or that. But the politician can retaliate, and the hospital, the homeless shelter, the opera, and the alma mater cannot. So it’s the politician who shoves his or her way to the head of the giving queue.

But having shoved his or her way forward, how much does the politician truly benefit from the super-PAC system? The politician’s natural interest is to spend as little as possible on consultants’ fees. That’s not in the consultants’ interest, obviously. The effect of the super PAC system is to put the consultants, not the politicians, in charge of the largest pools of political money—and then to wrap those consultants’ takings in layer upon layer of non-transparency and non-accountability.

Friday, May 14, 2004

the world's writing systems

I got The World's Writing Systems yesterday, and it's endlessly fascinating. I wish I could just curl up in a chair and pore over this book exploring the different scripts, from the curving contours of Oriya to the yet undeciphered Rongorongo.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Small Beginnings, Greater Ends

So said St. Francis of Assissi. I first heard these words in the song "If You Want Your Dream To Be", by Donovan, from Franco Zeffirelli's 1973 film "Brother Sun, Sister Moon".

For my first post, I ponder: what was the first blog? The question of "firsts" is always interesting. For example, what was the first English novel? Some say Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and others, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, but neither of these seem particularly novel-like to me---not enough interactions among characters, which I'd say would be the defining trait. I would vote for Richardson's Pamela.

Back to blogs. I propose that the first was John Baez's This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics, which he began on January 19, 1993. True, blogs are supposed to update more often than weekly; and This Week's Finds started out on a Usenet newsgroup, not the web. But blogs often don't update even as much as weekly, and I'd say no other blogger has the track record of John Baez. Moreover, newsgroups are all on the web now anyway. Speaking of which, the Google Groups 2 beta launched today!

Back to Baez. He seems to me to capture the spirit of a blog in a couple of ways. He puts together a bunch of things he's just learned and gotten excited about that week, even if they don't necessarily have to do with each other. And he always links in lots of references to other people and their work---in fact this is more or less the main point of his column. At first the references were just citations, but for quite a while now they've usually been hyperlinks to preprints, usually on the arXiv.org e-Print archive.

Those more interested in the history of electronic media than in mathematical physics can check out Week 32, where he discovers the World Wide Web, and Week 84, where he discovers the search engine (namely AltaVista), among many other interesting things.