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Week 20: Campaign Financing/Advertising

With the 2020 election wrapping up, we thought it would be important to talk about campaign financing, what it is, who it affects, and why we need to change the system. 

Here is a great introductory video in which congresswoman Cortez explains the dangers of dark money.

How does money get spent during campaigns?

Money is spent in two general avenues: publicity and overhead expenses. Politics is a popularity contest — so advertising such as lawn signs, billboards, leaflets, direct mailings, and social media and tv ads are all very important to get a candidate’s image and message out to the public. Money is also spent on operations such as plane tickets, hotel rooms, staff, event catering, and other campaign trail expenses. 

What effect does money have on campaigns?

The amount of money a candidate raises is directly proportional to their chance of winning. For example, in the 2018 general elections, 89% of candidates elected to the House spent more money on their campaigns than their opponents (83% in Senate). For that reason, it is very important for candidates to raise money, so large corporate and individual donors can influence policy by ensuring that the candidates they support financially implement their visions if elected. 

How do candidates get money?

Candidates and political organizations can get donations from individuals, private groups, or the government. There is a complex web of regulations that vary depending on who is giving money, how much they are donating, and to whom they are donating it (candidate or party). These regulations include donation limits, spending caps, and requirements for candidates to release certain information (such as donor names, amounts, and spending). This being said, most regulations have legal loopholes and insufficient enforcement.

Citizens United (2010), Super PACS, and Dark Money 

In the 2010 SCOTUS case Citizens United V. Federal Elections Committee, the court ruled that restricting corporate funding on election activities was a violation of the first amendment.

This decision allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of “soft money” on election funding so long as they are not directly coordinating with the candidate. This allowed for the creation of a ‘Super PAC,’ a sub-group of political action committees that can raise and donate unlimited amounts of money from corporations and individuals. 

From 2010 to 2018, Super PACs have spent more than 2.9 billion dollars on federal elections, advertising, and other materials that directly support or attack candidates. Where traditional political action committees are only able to contribute $5,000 to each candidate per year and election, the lack of limitation on super PACs allow corporations and individuals to influence elections without bounds. Although they must disclose their donors, Super PACs still allow for over a billion dollars without traceable sources (dark money) to enter the election cycles through shell corporations or other anonymous donor groups. This is particularly relevant in this election cycle, as “more than $116 million in political spending and 2020 contributions can be traced back to ‘dark money’ groups aligned with Democratic or Republican party leadership.”

Some problems with our current system:

Candidates’ chances of winning are largely reliant on their campaign spending, which makes it much more difficult for grassroots candidates (people that don’t take corporate or pac money) to succeed. This means that without change, the wealthy well connected members of society will continue to hold office, denying low-income communities true representation within our government and perpetuating a system that won’t prioritize their needs. This is closely tied to the second issue, which is that politicians can be controlled or at least highly influenced by corporations and individuals behind the scenes, meaning that the decisions being made about our laws, rights, and day to day lives are not being made by those we elect to office, rather the people who have enough money to be heard. Although there is a committee which is supposed to regulate campaign financing, it has been inefficient due to a lack of bi-partisan cooperation, allowing dark money spending to proliferate. 

What can we do about it?

While there is a desire to increase regulations and enact reform, a catch-22 exists where those elected to office can’t push for that reform because it would go against the interests of their sponsors. That being said, there is hope through organizations such as Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats that are working to help large numbers of candidates get elected who pledge to not take any PAC money or corporate sponsorship. Through organizations like these candidates such as the women who make up “The Squad” can be elected to government positions in order to truly represent and fight for their communities. 

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Waymo Aims Big with Self-Driving Cars

Steve Jobs famously told former Google CEO Larry Page that his company “did too much stuff.” Google, a company that is today worth $498 billion dollars has never revolved around a single product or idea. Their most known product, Google Search, is only a small piece of their always-growing portfolio. In 2010 Google X, Google’s “moonshot” project incubator, was created and became the home for some of Google’s most high risk, high reward projects, the most known of which is the Google Self Driving Car. Google researchers developed the idea for the car in 2009, and planned at the time to have a fully autonomous car built by 2020. Google’s fleet of self driving cars have since driven over two million miles around the West Coast and Texas. In late 2016, Google’s parent company Alphabet announced that they were forming a new company called Waymo that would turn the Google Self Driving Car Project into a possibly profitable business.

Self driving cars have brought forward a host of new questions about the dangers of entrusting your life to a computer. Many industry giants have data that they hope will reassure people of the increase in safety that self driving cars will bring. In 2016, Google published data from their self driving cars that showed optimistically low crash statistics. Over 1.8 million miles of autonomous driving the test vehicles were only involved in 13 fender-bender accidents, with no injuries reported. Nationally, automobile safety is a very large but ultimately solvable issue. In 2015 alone, 35,200 people died in automobile accidents. 94% of the crashes were caused by human error. This number is staggering, but automobile accidents have steadily risen year after year. This is in part due to the increase in drivers multitasking while driving. A survey done by AT&T in 2015 found that 70% of respondents used their phones while driving.

Manufacturers in the self driving car market like Tesla, Google, BMW and Toyota have proven through the millions of miles that they have driven in fully autonomous cars that self driving technology can save tens of thousands of lives through the artificial intelligence and machine learning technology that will hopefully become standard in future vehicles. Tesla, BMW, Infiniti and Mercedes Benz have all released cars that include some or all of the technology needed to become fully self driving vehicles. Tesla took a large step towards producing self-driving vehicles by building all of the sensors and computing devices needed for a car to be fully autonomous into their newest Model S, Model X, and Model 3 cars, which have themselves already reached some customers.

Although these cars are capable of being fully autonomous, many of the features have not yet reached vehicles. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has assured customers that all of the features will roll out via software updates in the coming weeks, although around 1,000 customers have already received the “Over The Air” update. In late 2016, Tesla proved the usefulness of autonomous cars when the assisted braking technology built into a Tesla miraculously avoided a possibly deadly collision. This is just one of many examples where self driving cars have proven to be lifesaving. Although the general consumer may not be ready to accept self driving cars at a wider level, it is clear that they have the potential to be very impactful when it comes to how we use pre-existing technology.

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Junior Project Blog: Learning in Germany

I am spending my Junior Project at Europa Gymnasium, but don’t expect me to come back with any extra muscles. Gymnasium is a type of German college-preparatory school, but across the street from Europa Gymnasium lies the combined Realschule and Hauptschule, which are the slower paced high school and the vocational high school, respectively. The Gymnasium goes through the 13th grade, at the end of which students take a test to receive both their diploma and college admission.

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A street

I am staying in a small town entirely surrounded by frozen fields, though all I can see is houses. It is a surprising contrast to the dense Sylvania that I am accustomed to. The density here is in the buildings, which are, unlike in small American villages, are neatly placed close together. However, no houses lie out of town at all. There are no houses up on remote streets or out of town a mile. The only building out of town is a chapel, and then the next village pops up after a few fields. We are only about 20 km (12.5 miles) from France as the crow flies, but here things are quite German, so long as everybody is speaking Hochdeutsch, or High German, rather than a dialect.

The first thing Madita, my host, asked me when I arrived in Germany was “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” In America we usually don’t ask about religion unless we know somebody well, but at Gymnasium students must take one of three courses: Catholicism, Protestantism, or Ethics. Students who are neither Catholic nor Protestant takes Ethics, so I was planning on taking Ethics. However, nobody in my main class took Ethics, so there wasn’t an Ethics class available to take. Instead, I went to Protestant class, where I understood almost nothing in the discussion about sickness and death. I usually don’t think about GFS as being theologically diverse.

We tend to lean heavily liberal, we all go to Meeting for Worship, and we take our main break around Christmastime. However, being in Protestant class (and most likely Lutheran, though not much of a distinction seems to be made between Protestant religions here) made me think about how the entire class had similar theological beliefs.

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The sun catches a side of the Gynasium School

Math class was the class where I understood the most. The new unit is on exponential functions, but we started by doing problems with exponents and scientific notation. Once I figured out the vocabulary and what the word problems meant, thanks to my great math teachers, this class was a breeze.

We had lunch when we got home, which today was early, around 1. There are eight periods of 45 minutes each, like GFS, plus some breaks, so the school day adds up to be about the same length, but there is no lunch break at school. Some students eat after school if their parents don’t want them to come home to an empty house, and often on longer days students bring sandwiches, but there is no formal eating break.

 

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