Friday, February 28, 2014

Following the wrong money

I'm pretty proud of the little Twitter bot I wrote to auto-tweet large Illinois campaign contributions, but this morning I realized its true insignificance. Campaign finance is simply not where the story about money and politics really is, and all of the sound and fury over its minutiae signify nothing. In 2012, estimates vary but about $2.6 billion was spent on the Presidential race; around $6 billion was spent on all federal races (including House and Senate elections).

In 2014, the White House budget projects spending $3.78 trillion dollars. In other words, the most expensive set of elections in American history - by far - accounts for about 0.16% of the federal budget for 2014. The government will spend the equivalent of one of the most expensive Presidential races America has ever seen in 4.5 hours. As a percentage of the federal budget, the 2012 Presidential election cost less than the percentage of health care spending we allot to circumcision.

The question isn't, "Why is there so much money in American politics?" but rather, "Why is there so little?" And more importantly, "Where is the real money going, and where's the real quid-pro-quo?"

Those are tough questions to answer, so I won't. A lot of people are already working on them, and entire careers can be devoted to understanding where the federal dollar is spent. What's interesting to me is why campaign finance data gets so much more attention in journalismland.

I started wondering about this this morning at an overflowing NICAR panel on mining FEC data - one of about 4 explicitly devoted to campaign finance, with another half-dozen panels using campaign finance as one topic among others under discussion. Legions of nonprofits and open-source projects and websites are devoted to analyzing and dissecting campaign finance -, the Sunlight Foundation's Influence Explorer,, and pretty much every major and minor newspaper has some sort of campaign finance project.

There's nothing wrong with all this activity, to an extent - great, valuable, important stories remain to be found in campaign finance data, at both the state and federal level. But I think the real reasons for this surfeit of attention paid to such a tiny chunk of money are structural, and troubling.

For one thing, it's just easier to analyze and write stories about this data. Disclosure laws are admirably firm(ish), so there's a ready source of easily-understood data about who's giving money to campaigns and who's getting money from them. Dates, contribution amounts, names, addresses, occupations - it's all there, it's all obvious and straightforward, and your only headaches are in parsing file formats and matching up misspelled names.

It's also much easier to make an assertion on the basis of this evidence alone. Did someone give $20,000 to a politician who then appointed them to an office? That's all you need to know in order to raise an eyebrow, and it's all public record, so it's totally defensible. Was a contract awarded to someone's brother, when another firm was better-equipped to do the job? That's vastly harder to prove, and a lot of that evidence isn't already public, requiring even more effort.

Ultimately, my fear is that campaign finance has had a spotlight trained on it for so long that the real malfeasance has migrated. If you're a shady character looking to exert undue influence on a system, or looking to profit from that system, are you going to commit your shady acts in the one place you know reporters are constantly looking for stories? The one place you know everything will be made public, scrutinized by bots and concerned citizens and hungry journalists looking to find you? Or are you going to start sleazing around the government contracts that are so much larger, and so much more opaque, and already so sleazy to begin with?

In short, if you're trying to exert undue influence or scrape some cash off the top of a fat government contract, are you going to go where the sunlight is, or where the money is?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Midnight in the Mayor Bilandic Memorial Dibs Garden

It's the only memorial to Mike Bilandic I've ever seen, a festive celebration of two great Chicago traditions that nobody outside the city really understands, while those inside it only pretend to: Chicago celebrates its political corruption with a zeal normally reserved for the defense of parking spaces, and now some great genius has twinned the two.

In a side alley near 53rd and Woodlawn - those of you who know the city know instinctively where this is, another grand City tradition, marking territory and therefore the teller of a tale by implicit association with intersections - the memory of Chicago's snowed-in hopeless seat-warmer lives on, eternal flame tended by irony and nostalgia in unequal measure.

He let us drown in snow, the elders tell us, reminding us of a day when the provision (or lack thereof) of city services would drive even a Machine Mayor from office. Woe betide the public official who fails to salt the streets, a lesson burned into the memory of anyone who wants to see their name in Chicago's version of flashing lights, on thin cardboard placed just outside the statutorily-mandated 100 feet from a polling place.

The machine gave us Bilandic, just like it gave us Daley before him and Daley after him and on down through the generations, past Cermak and Kelly and Nash and Brennan - dig those first-generation names that adorn our street signs still - all the way back to Ogden. But the machine, back when it was the Machine, gave us Bilandic right out of the fingertips of Chicago's real first Black Mayor, Wilson Frost - now there's a name you don't see on street signs - when it decided that the city charter didn't really mean it when it said that the (black) President Pro Temp of the City Council became Mayor when the Mayor died.

So they locked him out of the office, because of course they did, "can't find the keys," they actually told poor Wilson. One of those conversations in which you imagine everyone knows what's really going on whether or not anybody says it out loud, speaking in a code so transparent it might as well not be a code at all but appearances, even in Chicago, must be kept.

So yeah, Acting Mayor Frost tried to park in that space. It was clear of snow, no obstacles in sight, but the rusted-out chair was merely invisible. Don't you know it, Bilandic had shoveled that space out this morning and it was really his after all. He just forgot to put the chair out, but it was there, don't you worry about that. They should have called him Mayor Dibs; I hope they did.

The snow did him in. That's the legend, anyway; I wasn't around, or born. He didn't get Snow Command out on the roads fast enough, I guess, though I'm not sure what he could have done. January 14th, 1979, left Chicago buried under a still-record 29 inches of snow. This has definitely been a historically brutal winter, but we've only seen 62.9" of snow so far; in 1978-79, they got 80.6", which remains the snowiest winter since records were kept in this city.

The other thing that happened in these early February weeks 35 years ago was, as Mayor Dibs' luck would have it, a mayoral primary, and grumpy Chicagoans expressed their displeasure by voting for Jane Byrne. She ran as a reformer but she was solidly of Machine stock. Byrne was appointed to Daley's cabinet and fired from Bilandic's, and would, as Mayor, replace the head of the most important Machine institution, the Cook County Democratic Party, with a guy nicknamed Fast Eddie who somehow managed to be an even sleazier character than you might expect. At one point, ostensibly to curb the violence in the neighborhood, she moved into the (now largely demolished) Cabrini-Green projects, planning to stay for "as long as it takes," according to her press secretary. She stayed for three weeks.