“Political Economics” by John Edward

John Edward, a resident of Chelmsford who earned his master’s degree at UMass Lowell and who teaches economics at Bentley University and UMass Lowell, contributes the following column.

Whatever your economic “religion”, you are probably losing faith. There is cause for great doubt whether you are a fiscal conservative, a Keynesian, a tea party advocate, or in the 99 percent. It is very difficult to be a true believer in the United States economy.

Our economy will continue to suffer because our political system is broken. Regardless of who wins in November that is not going to change. The situation may need to get much worse before the political will to make fundamental changes will emerge.

If the courage and consensus for change does come together, here are suggestions for reforming the political system. They are not sufficient to fix our economic plight, but they may be necessary.

Campaign Finance Reform

Campaign finance reform instituted before the 1976 presidential election limited Ford and Carter to $35 million in spending. By 2008, the limit had increased to $84 million. Presidential candidates now opt out because they can raise that much in a good month. To make matters much worse, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case opened the floodgates for anonymous money to pour in via Political Action Committees (now referred to as “Super PACs”). The court ruled money is speech. The result is that speech cost too much for most of us to afford. We end up with elected officials who, in the most optimistic case, allow us to infer that money influences their votes.

We need to strengthen the campaign finance reform the Supreme Court gutted. It is hard to imagine Congress reforming how they hold onto their seats. We may need to amend the constitution. We may need a constitutional convention. Legal scholar Lawrence Lessig discusses why and how in his book Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress – and a Plan to Stop It. His plan includes a radical new way to fund elections that combines public finance with private choice. He calls it The Grant and Franklin Project.

Lobbying Reform

Just to take one example, the financial industry spends a half billion dollars on campaign donations and lobbying every year. Bankers and securities dealers must feel they are getting their money’s worth. Actually, they can be quite sure they are because in many cases lobbyists were once on the other side of the revolving door that is Capitol Hill (and Beacon Hill). The payoff for members of Congress and their staffers is the job they can get after their government job. That is when they can make big bucks influencing their replacements. Manipulating our “free-market” economy is by no means free.

People have the right to lobby. What we need are reasonable limits and transparency. Former Congressman Marty Meehan proposed lobbying reform when he was still in office. It is hard to imagine Congress reforming a relationship that is very lucrative for them — unless we, the people, force the issue.

Redistricting Reform

Massachusetts has a rich history with redistricting, from Gerrymandering, to Speaker Finneran pleading guilty to obstruction of justice for lying under oath about his involvement in a redistricting plan. Politicians control the process. For the latest round, the state appointed a Joint Special Committee on Redistricting. The first thing they did was fly to Washington to consult with the sitting congressional delegation. Despite approval ratings for Congress below 10 percent, incumbents win re-election more than 90 percent of the time. Estimates vary, but somewhere around 90 percent of the 435 congressional districts are “safe seats” where a challenger has very little chance of victory due to the demographics of the district. During the redistricting process, incumbents, or the majority party, design districts to align with their economic religion. The incentive for members of Congress is to play to the faithful and avoid compromise.

At a minimum, we need to take politics, and politicians, out of the redistricting process. An extreme solution would be to eliminate congressional districts. If we had statewide election of all nine House seats with cumulative voting Congress would represent more economic religions. Alternatively, we could try it first at the statehouse level with “super districts” designed by an independent commission.

Budget Process Reform

In the last fifty years, the federal budget was truly in surplus only twice. The budget deficit for fiscal year 2012 was well over a trillion dollars. Keynesians and the tea party will disagree on the merits of deficit spending when economic growth is slow and unemployment is high. However, they can both agree that when the economy is healthy, persistent deficits are a sign of a budget process in need of reform.

Congressional earmarks may only be one-half of one percent of federal spending, but they set a bad precedent for both fiscal discipline and political integrity. We should prohibit them. We should experiment with zero-based budgeting and measure the results. I suggest starting with an independent audit of the $4.4 billion spent last year on the federal legislative branch. We should give the President the line-item veto.

Presidential Election Reform

My prediction is that Governor Romney will win the popular vote, but President Obama will be re-elected with an electoral college majority. The problem is not that the electoral college could deprive Romney his chance at the White House. It is not that Al Gore won the popular vote by over a half-million votes but lost the election by one vote in the Supreme Court. The electoral college deprives the electorate of one-person one-vote. It forces candidates to focus on a few swing states.

We should replace the electoral college with a popular vote by amending the Constitution. If that does not work, a more subversive approach is the National Popular Vote initiative.

Meaningful reform will require grass-roots initiatives. With a nod to Walt Kelly (and his comic strip character Pogo): We have met the leadership, and he is us.