The Public Interest Research Group, the national Naderite network of grassroots think tanks, has just released “Following the Money,” a report that grades the efforts of all 50 states in providing taxpayers online access to government spending data.
Alas, Silicon Valley’s mother ship ranked dead last – along with Alaska and Idaho, and behind Mississippi, South Carolina and West Virginia — in making arcane but important public finance information, about matters like contracts, the purchase goods, services and other state expenditures, easily available and clearly understandable:
Every year, state governments spend tens of billions of dollars through contracts for goods and services, subsidies to encourage economic development, and other expenditures. Accountability and public scrutiny are necessary to ensure that the public can trust that state funds are well spent…
Over the past year, new states have opened the books on public spending and several states have adopted new practices to further expand citizens’ access to critical spending information. Many states, however, still have a long way to go to provide taxpayers with the information they need to ensure that government is spending their money effectively.
That would be us.
Asking the wrong questions: Among other things, California’s dgs.ca.gov site loses major points for lack of searchability. It falls short on providing access to some very useful information like tax expenditure reports.
It’s also an abiding mystery why our public bureaucracies continue to offer only mammoth pdf documents rather than using the miracle that is the hyperlink. Witness Wikipedia. It too has oodles of information but unlike any CAFR or the BDCP or any other pretty, consultant-produced PDF, it has an amazing feature: it’s actually readable. So much for naïve dreaming.
As interesting and thorough as it may be, the PIRG analysis, however, is a case of mistaking the map for the territory.
For the 99.8% of Californians who don’t read state financials directly, the searchability of the Department of General Services website matters far less than the quality of the coverage in the Sacramento Bee.
And for the .2% of Californians who, out of professional interest or passion actually bother to dig into state government financials, a pretty search interface matters far less than simple machine readability; any analyst worth her salt will run her own numbers anyway, and any journalist who deserves the name will go beyond the numbers to dig into inside sources and figure out what’s really going on.
Drilling down: More deeply, as the recent corruption saga of Leland Yee and Ron Calderon demonstrate, the real challenge is not spinach and broccoli website upgrades so much as dealing with the “invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people,” as Teddy Roosevelt put it.
Like TR, we live in an era of crony capitalism. Similar to the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society, the information age has spawned massively wealthy corporations and rampant rent-seeking, as groups of all stripes scramble to preserve their share of a rapidly shifting economic pie.
This reality demands reform. Yet the failures of campaign finance in a post-Citizen’s United world make that problem tricky, to put it mildly. So how might we tackle this challenge at a structural level?
With that, here’s a not so modest proposal – let’s call it the initiative to restore truth, justice, and the American way. It has three simple planks:
1) $1,000 internet advertising voucher for every California voter courtesy of Google, Facebook and the other mega-platforms. Tech types like to talk about how they’re building a more open society. Why not help them put their money where their mouth is by creating this simple regulation? Every voter would be free to spend their advertising promoting a cause, candidate or message they support. Or they can allocate their money to a group or individual of their choice. It’d be no different than how cable companies have to donate airtime to public access channels – just at an individual level. And unlike promising proposals like “patriot dollars,” “Zuck Bucks” would require negligible funds from the public purse.
2) Returning corporate purses to the people. In order to spend money for political purposes in California, any corporation would need to “(A) describe the specific nature and total amount of expenditures proposed for political activities for the forthcoming fiscal year and (B) provide for a separate shareholder vote to authorize such proposed expenditures” (similar to the proposed federal Shareholder Protection Act).
3) Returning union purses to the people. In order to spend money for political purposes in California, any union would need to get the advance authorization of its members. This reform would prohibit the automatic deduction of union dues for political activity.
Such organizations – regardless what IRS code they’re incorporated in – are just legal fictions. And their political spending should reflect the views of the actual people they claim to represent.
Voters are justifiably skeptical that “people like themselves” have a voice in our democracy. These reforms would put money behind the votes of everyday Californians and help break the stranglehold that moneyed interests have on the state legislature.
It’s been said that campaign finance reform is like “trying to stop water from flowing downhill.” Luckily, we’re Californians, and we have a long history of pioneering structures to move water from where it is to where it needs to be.
It’s equally important to remember what this reform won’t solve. Neither nifty technobucks nor transparency can solve the problem of evil in the human heart. But we can take pragmatic steps to move forward.
Political writer Patrick Atwater is an author, entrepreneur and frequent Calbuzz commentator who has a major jones for reforming California’s government.