Derek Bok

The Trouble with Government, Part II

VTR Date: December 7, 2000

Guest: Bok, Derek


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Derek Bok
Title: “The Trouble With Government”, Part II
VTR: 12/7/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with Derek Bok, Harvard University’s distinguished President Emeritus concerning “The Trouble With Government”, the title of his compelling new study published by the Harvard University Press. Now, let me pick up with my guest where we left off last time.

Mr. Bok we were talking about so many things that I realized that I didn’t touch upon a very, very important part of the book and that, of course, I would assume stems from or is reflected by your involvement with Common Cause. And that has to do with the role of lobbyists in making our government perhaps less effective than it could or should be.

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: Tell me about that and your own, your own fix on what to do. What the problem is and what to do.

BOK: Well, I think in recent years the problem which has always been there in democracy has really become quite severe. And by the problem I mean the role that money, particularly money from special interests plays in the whole process of government and politics. Because in recent years various loopholes have been found in the law. So that individuals and interest groups can give virtually any amount that they want to specific parties, to specific election races. The involvement of money in politics has begun to spread into judicial elections, into local elections, where it played a much less prominent role. And so we really have a very serious problem. The difficulty is in, as always, is in figuring out what to do about it. Because in the first place the people who give money to influence policy have very high stakes and therefore, very great interest in doing something to have some influence over decisions that are going to matter a great deal to their lives. So that you can think up very artful legislation, but just like the tax laws, after a certain period of time, people find ways around that. So, probably there’s no perfect solution. It’s a process of continuous adjustment. But we’ve let that go for sufficiently long that the need for adjustment has become major and the loopholes have become great, glaring holes in the dyke that are allowing a lot of money and influence to creep into the system. Now there are many things that can be done the heartening thing is that at the state level a lot of experimentation has gone on in the best spirit of Justice Brandeis who talked about the laboratory of democracy where different states tried different things and eventually we can learn from experience what will work best. But you have three or four states that have moved to something that was thought to be impossible a few years ago, and that is full public financing of state elections, where all the money that is spent by candidates who opt into the system comes from the government. There’s no private money involved at all. There are other states which have partial public financing to a substantial extent. There are still others that are actually playing with something akin to a voucher system, where everybody gets a tax credit, which in effect says, “you can give money free”. Anyone could give money free via a tax credit to the candidates of their choice. So I think we have the chance of allowing this experimental process to go forward, watching very carefully to see what works and eventually arriving at, at a better solution than we have had in the past. There are only two problems with that. One is we can’t wait for the states to work this process out before doing something because the problems at the Federal level are, are already sufficiently pressing, that even though we don’t know the final answer we need to do some things like ban soft money, maybe find a way of giving candidates opportunities to reach the public on a subsidized basis that will make it easier for challengers to get their message across. We need to do some things like that to keep the current system in better order while we wait for this process of experimentation at the State level to go forward.

HEFFNER: Well, you know, many years ago, I guess it was 1968, The Twentieth Century Fund set up a Commission on Campaign Costs in the electronic era …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … noting that it was television costs, truly …

BOK: Sure.

HEFFNER: … that had driven up …

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … the numbers involved. And when I think of the numbers involved then with the numbers most recently involved, I have to laugh.

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … the way it has expanded. And we recommended what we called “voters’ time” …

BOK: Sure.

HEFFNER: … and that is we weren’t concerned about time for the candidates …
BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … but were concerned about time …

BOK: Sure.

HEFFNER: … on the broadcasting stations …

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … for …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … the voter …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … and Tommy Corcoran came to me, because I was the Executive Director …

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … of the study …

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and said, “you know, you’re going to be disappointed because nothing’s going to happen in ten years, or in fifteen years. But give it about twenty years …

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … and everything is going to change. Well, it’s been over thirty years now …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … and nothing has changed. What … where do you find, if you have any optimism about change in this area … where do you find the basis for it? You talk about the States …

BOK: Sure.

HEFFNER: … but you also say “That’s not what we can wait upon”.

BOK: Yes. Well, we’ve come very close to getting substantial reform at the Federal level. Not complete answers, but substantial reform that will kind of hold the fort while the work at the State level goes on. We’ve gotten … in two years in a row, a majority in both Houses of Congress. The legislation failed to pass only because the threat of a filibuster which requires sixty votes could not be overcome. In the last election, however, a number of people who were opposed to, to campaign finance reform lost. A number of people who signed Common Cause pledges in favor of major reform were elected. So the situation, in Congress, looks better. But, of course, there’s always a big problem, and I think at the root of our difficulties, lies something that we haven’t really faced up to, and that is … that whether we’re talking about re-districting or whether we’re talking about campaign finance reform, or anything that bears on the rules of the game for electing candidates, we suffer from the fact that the rules are being set by those people who have the greatest individual personal stake in the outcome. It’s a little as though we said that in baseball from now on, when the New York Yankees win the World Series, we will ask the New York Yankees to make the rules of baseball for the following years. We would all regard that as ludicrous. But that is very much what we’re up against in campaign finance reform. So I think what we ought to do, especially because, as I say, you’re not going to solve this problem in one great final perpetual solution, it requires continuous adjustment. So you need some more impartial way of doing that. So I would be searching for some way of finding a, an impartial group of very great prestige involving former Federal Judges, even retired Presidents, who become much more Statesmanlike after leaving office, than they may have been before. And other leading citizens to participate on some regular basis in reviewing our campaign finance and other election rules and making recommendations that would carry enough prestige that it would be much more difficult for Congress to refuse to accept them.

HEFFNER: You know, I, I realize that in “The Trouble With Government” you suggest just that.

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: And I thought of Blue Ribbon Commissions and I wondered whether they are an indication of the failure of democracy.

BOK: Mmmm. I think in a number of cases you could construe them that way. Perhaps you could say that about the one that I was referring to. And yet I don’t regard it as a failure of democracy that there are certain kinds of issues, like election rules, in which the, the officials who are normally in charge have such a great self interest that you need to find some other mechanism or group of people to make … at least to make recommendations on what the rules ought to be. That doesn’t, doesn’t seem to me to be a real failure of democracy, but just a recognition of … that, that human beings can rarely make wise and objective judgments about things in which they have a vital personal interest. That’s a fact of life that we take account of all the time through conflict of interest laws and other things. And I don’t think we feel it’s a failure of the human or it’s a failure of the medical profession that we outlaw conflicts of interest in referring patients, for example. We regard it as simply a providential thing to do to take care of a fundamental part of human nature, which is you can’t depend on people to make objective decisions if they have a vital stake in the outcome.

HEFFNER: On that question … fundamental human nature …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … so many of the problems that you deal with here seem to me to stem, in part, at least from that aspect of human nature … certainly it’s true when you, you talk about the media … that has to do with profit. About the market system …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … about our involvement, as if there were nothing else …

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … in the free market system. And I wondered what your sense of the appropriateness of that involvement is?

BOK: Well, again it’s, it’s like so much else in the book. It’s really mixed. Our reliance on competition, which is pervasive in America and on the market, has some wonderful results. Particularly in the economy, but even in other spheres of life, as well. Competition, for example, in the media produces a lot of healthy energy at innovation, at digging out better stories than other newspapers and so forth.

HEFFNER: You don’t mind if I put that aside and perhaps someday we’ll talk about …

BOK: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … I don’t agree. [Laughter]

BOK: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: [Laughter] But, go ahead.

BOK: But, you know, competition, if it is not carefully regulated in some fashion is likely to produce bad results. I mean that’s why we have anti-trust laws, for example. That’s why we have laws about truth in advertising and, and product safety. And similarly, in, in the field of government I think one glaring problem with unrestrained competition is that, of course, competing newspapers and television stations cannot recapture as profit the value of an informed citizenry. So that on strict and classic economic principals, you will under invest in, in public affairs programming and news-gathering. And other countries recognize that by putting a healthy subsidy into various forms of public affairs programming. The United States does that far less. And I think one of the things we do need to do is, is accept the virtues of the marketplace. But supplement it where it doesn’t work quite well enough. And one of those places is in the absence of sufficient public affairs programming to adequately inform the citizenry.

HEFFNER: But, of course, the question … you say, where it doesn’t work so well …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … what is the, the measuring stick for where it doesn’t work so well?

BOK: Well, the measuring stick, I think here comes from a combination of facts. Part of it is just sort of classic economic theory that you, you invest in order to make a profit and where there are valuable products that don’t carry a profit, you will not get in a market system adequate investment because the incentive isn’t there. And a free and enlightened citizenry is not something from which profits can be made. So that needs to be supplemented from, from other sources. I think the confirmation comes when you look at the fact that there are, you know, very few programs about important public issues. Very few programs coming on really trying to inform the public about Social Security, Medicare, reforming the health care system. Even though these are vitally important decisions to people’s lives, they get far less attention than many issues that are very ephemeral, much less value to the welfare of individuals. But they’re profitable. And these programs are not. So, I think that’s really what I mean. Theoretically you’d expect us to be so. If you look at the results, there’s every reason to believe, when you look at what programs do come on and don’t come on, every reason to believe that “Yes”, compared with other countries, particularly, we do less to inform our citizens about important issues of government than, than other countries.

HEFFNER: Yet … as I read this great book I couldn’t help but think of another Harvard man …

BOK: Aha …

HEFFNER: Walter Lippmann …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: And how, eighty years ago he was writing, touching on so many of the same things, but he didn’t have to deal with the kinds of distractions to …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … to learning …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … to understanding …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … to development of a wise public opinion that you have to deal with now.

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: And we have “progressed” or whatever the word might be.

BOK: Also, he was much more pessimistic than I about the capacity of the public to play an informed role. I’m more optimistic about people. And their, their ability to arrive at reasonably good judgments about many public issues if they are inspired to do so.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, that would have to lead me to the question of … if we separate out the matter of genetics and what one’s natural predisposition is, has anything happened in these eighty years since that great book appeared that would give Lippmann, were he here today, the feelings that you express, “Well, we must have more faith in …”. And, “There is a reason for having more faith in democracy”.

BOK: Well, I think there’s some things that we understand now that Lippmann may not have understood. One thing we understand is that by, for some very complicated reasons that we probably don’t have a chance to go into here, the collective judgment of many people has advantages over the judgments of individuals. So that you can go around polling individuals and find that their ignorance on public matters is very great. And yet, the judgments they reach by … collectively … turn out to be somewhat better. That was something that was divined many, many years ago by a French political philosopher, but has really been pursued and explained in much more detail since Lippmann wrote. The other thing I think that ought to give us some, some optimism is, if you compare states and you look at the states in America in you have high rates of participation, and in some states there’s much higher participation than there is in others. Contrary to those people who feel that more people voting just means ignoramuses pulling the voting leavers and producing dubious results, you find again and again that the states where the voting rates are the highest, where the political participation is the most vigorous are the states that are wealthier per capita. They’re the states where by all composite indices of livability and success and social programs are in the top third. And the states where public participation is lowest are almost uniformly in the bottom third. So I think there’s some reason to believe, from experience as well as in theory that getting people to work at their democracy and participate in it is a healthy thing that produces better results in the end.

HEFFNER: So that, let me … let me see if I understand correctly. Going back to your involvement with Common Cause …

BOK: Yes.

HEFFNER: … you think there is a much better chance now …

BOK: I think there’s a better chance of getting reform. I think more people understand the importance of reform. I think we have … as I say, we’ve convinced the majority of both Houses. I think what we need to push it over the top, however, is precisely what I’ve been talking about. We need a greater sense on the part of Congress that people care about this issue. Now already over 80% of the American public will say that we need substantial campaign finance reform. What Congress is not convinced of Is that people really care about this issue. And I think if we can do a better job of educating people about the stake they have in this, about recognizing that policies that affect their lives can be influenced in ways that are not constructive and not in their interests by vast amounts of private money entering the political process. If people can really understand that and see the stake they have in it, we can get just a moderately increased amount of pressure and public concern of the sort that you began to see in the Bradley and McCain campaigns, then I think campaign finance reform will come as a matter of course.

HEFFNER: What reform would you want to see? I mean how, how would you describe it?

BOK: Well …

HEFFNER: How far will you go?

BOK: … as I say, what I am really for is this vigorous process of experimentation. I don’t want to pretend that I know more than I do. Most people who’ve thought about perfect campaign finance systems have been frustrated by actual experience. It’s very difficult to get it right because of the variety of interests you’re trying to serve. So what I would really like is some significant reforms at the Federal level and a process at the State level which will enable us to try full public financing, try partial public financing, try tax credits, try the other things that we’re trying. And over a decade come to an informed consensus in this country about what seems to, to work better. I think that is the process most likely to lead us to better result in the end.

HEFFNER: What do you think it will bring about in terms of social policy if the mother’s milk of politics …

BOK: Sure.

HEFFNER: … the dollar … money is diminished in its importance. What do you think will happen? Health care that’s of a more civilized nature than we enjoy now.

BOK: Well, I think a lot of the special exceptions, the hidden subsidies, the exemptions from regulation, the various other special deals that, that are very common in legislation would be substantially diminished if you did not have this amount of money coming into the system. That’s one important change. Second important change is I think it would take the kind of wealth bias out of, out of public policy. I mean, by that I mean the fact that almost all the money for, for campaigns really comes from the top two or three percent of the income scale of the United States. And that’s simply too much influence coming from one narrow segment of our public. And so I think in a whole series of ways, serious campaign finance reform would enable Congress to take a somewhat more balanced view without being as concerned as they are now about whether they’re going to alienate one particular segment, a rather small segment of the public, on which the financing of their political future has become so dependent.

HEFFNER: You know, as I read the book, I had the feeling that if you have your way …

BOK: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … a lot of things would be turned upside down …

BOK: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: … in this nation. Am I, am I wrong?

BOK: Well, I … I’ve tried to look at this in a quite hard-headed way because I’m really very skeptical about vast Utopian reforms. I think what I’m suggesting in the book are a series of adjustments which I think would make the government function better … in turn … not in … in bringing about my policies or your policies … the whole book is built on trying to figure out how can we make the government function better to achieve the things that large majorities of Americans say they want to happen in this country. I think you could, you could significantly improve the government’s performance … not by any one big thing, but by a whole series of things. Underlying all that, the biggest single thing I think would be trying to greatly increase participation. And I think one change that that would have, is that it would mean that the welfare of the … not just poor people … but the welfare of the … what we … bottom forty or fifty percent of the American people would be taken more seriously than it is now. Because quite apart from the fact that we have the highest poverty rates, by the far the largest number of children in poverty, we do less to get people out of poverty … all of those things are true and often remarked on. What isn’t always looked at is if you look at the kind of legislation that serves the interests of working people, that makes it possible to hold a job and, and look after your family … that gives you child care, that gives you pre-school, that gives you security from the basic hazards of life, consistently in the comparisons that I make between the United States and other leading democracies … we fall behind. And the most obvious reason for that is that Americans in the bottom fifty percent of the income scale simply vote at very much lower rates that the rest of Americans, and very much lower rates than people … their counterparts in other industrial democracies. So that would be one big change that would have, I think, substantial beneficial results in the quality of our government.

HEFFNER: Derek Bok, thank you so much for joining me again today on The Open Mind …

BOK: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And, you know, I’m going to vote for you … certainly I’m going to vote for “The Trouble With Government”. It’s not “The Trouble With Harry” because you don’t think we’re dead, and I’m glad that you’ve written this book and hope everyone buys it, reads it, makes it another “Democracy In America”.

BOK: Thank you so much for inviting me.

HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.