Case Study: reddit and 3M

Because of my profession (I can say that now because I finally get paid to do it), I end up spending a lot of time around electronics like my phone or computers. And, similarly, I spend a decent chunk of my time on a website called reddit.

If you’re familiar with reddit, you’ll know its political breakdown is much less homogeneous than it was during its beginning years. Right now, the most vocal groups tend to be the liberals and libertarians (in that order), with the “I don’t follow politics” crowd coming in third, and conservatives last.

One of the more prominent talking points of those who reside left-of-center is the “corporations aren’t people and buy elections and we need to get money out of politics”. Because of this, reddit tends to complain about how corporations suck almost ad nauseam.

To be fair, it’s not an unfounded argument. Corporations do have a vested interest in politics, and a blatant example would be Google’s (somewhat recent) $15 million per year political expenditures.

But, because I’m a nice guy and I hate pointing out that unions tend to spend similar dollar amounts but for left-of-center candidates and issues, I usually keep my mouth shut. However, the other day I saw a post that I ended up replying to. (How else will I hit 100k karma?)

In order to keep my account secret, I’ll paraphrase the post:

  • Limit the total number of terms a single person can run (lowering the importance of reelections and securing campaign funding in office)
  • Limiting the amount of campaign donations from any given entity
  • Limit the ability to lobby
  • Hold congressmen accountable for the desires of their constituents, etc.

Novel goals, but naive. Look, I’ll be the first to say that the amount of money in politics is obscene. Presidential races shouldn’t cost over $1 billion, and our founding fathers are probably rolling over in their graves right now.

Term limits make sense for certain offices. Presidential limits are great because Presidents have this uncanny ability of being demagogues and swaying people almost religiously. Case and point: FDR. But term limits don’t make sense for congress.

Supporters of term limits say they will, to quote the random guy from reddit, “[lower] the importance of reelections and securing campaign funding in office.” Or something to that effect.

Hypothetically let’s say we limit our representatives to two terms in office. Instead of potentially making a career out of politics and having to not become a complete shill, they essentially have free reign to do whatever for one or two years.

Instead of being expensive to buy (they can wait for the highest bidder) they become cheap, since their time in office is short. All of a sudden your district’s representative goes from being a $5 million purchase to a $1 million. Sure, a lot of money, but many more groups can afford $1 million than $5 million, and it’s just an example—it’s not supposed to reflect actual dollar amounts.

Want to know why a lot of legislators seem to back corporate or union interests most of the time? Those two groups are the only groups lobbying.

Moving on, supporters of limiting campaign contributions tend to argue that it’ll lessen the ability of organizations to “purchase” legislators. This, actually, has some validity. Some states and even the FEC have contribution limits. It keeps things honest. The flip side of this is it hurts a lot of politicians who aren’t shills and need to pay back the money they spent on their campaigns.

During a campaign you (the politician) solicit yourself to lobbyists and people with money to burn, and those people will either throw you money or will snub you. After you win—if you win—you go back to those lobbyists who snubbed you and “politely” let them know you would like some money before your campaign funds are frozen for roughly 6 months (or however long you have between now and the end of session).

For an honest politician (isn’t that an oxymoron?), limiting contributions is a big blow—especially at the local level where more often than not politicians tend to be halfway decent human beings. (Or “earthlings”, as they’re also called.)

Next on the chopping block is the idea that limiting lobbying is a good way to decrease corruption. In short, that only makes sense if the only groups able to lobby are those who are able to “purchase” politicians. Unfortunately, this isn’t really the case—anybody can lobby.

Want to know why a lot of legislators seem to back corporate or union interests most of the time? Those two groups are the only groups lobbying.

Yeah. Nobody else really cares. When (former) Governor Chris Gregoire “solicited ideas from the public about laws that needed changing…” there were only “some 2,000 submissions.” (Times Article.)

There are nearly 7 million people living in Washington state, yet only 2,000 could muster up the ability to submit laws they thought needed to be changed?

Even during contested debates, like the gun control debates during Washington state’s 2014 session, the turnout was best described as meh. Sure, several hundred people can march around the capital scaring legislative staff and middle-school aged pages, but that’s about as far as it goes, and that’s decidedly different than watching the hearings.

In December 2014 the Seattle Times ran an investigation into prison labor in Washington state. One of the most shocking discoveries was that 3M essentially had its way with the legislature in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

The short story is that 3M extensively lobbied the state legislature about the alleged safety issue of the state’s license plates losing their reflective coating over time. They promoted a piece of legislation that would require car owners to replace their license plates every seven years.

Eventually the bill was passed, much to 3M’s benefit.

“So that you know, there was NO study,” a colleague responded. The state had simply accepted the claims of 3M and looked at other states that were replacing plates.

However, evidence shows that the bill really shouldn’t have passed on the grounds of road safety. According to the Seattle Times, California highway patrol (CHP) officers have had little problem reading license plates even though California does not have any rules requiring the replacing of plates.

Additionally, the study group formed in 1996 never actually came up with a study. The Seattle Times reports: “‘So that you know, there was NO study,’ a colleague responded. The state had simply accepted the claims of 3M and looked at other states that were replacing plates.”

Rather shockingly, nobody in the entire state was able to bring to light the CHP’s lack of issues with old plates or that the legislature never brought up their study. Actually, nobody had even asked for the study.

Nobody cares, so unions and corporations have their way lobbying. It’s not a broken system, it’s the individual people who don’t care enough about their legislature and state to participate, yet love to complain about all the issues our government/state/country is having when they hear their favorite news pundit ranting about how Obama is literally destroying America and how it’s still Bush’s fault.

The problem lies not necessarily in the system but in the people who refuse to participate in the system. A great example of this would be the Millennial generation. We, the Millennials, have some of—if not the—lowest voter turnout of all age groups, yet we have shown to have a profound on elections when do show up to vote.

If people would participate in politics from somewhere other than the comfort of their couch or armchair then we’d actually see changes.

It’s not like there aren’t problems with legislators’ behavior. For instance, a certain Senator who championed a new bill that changed the time between license plate changes from seven to five years (provided the car changes owners) was treated “[by a 3M lobbyist]…to meals and drinks from restaurants and bars in Olympia on at least 16 occasions.” (Times.)

Now, without levying ethics charges against said Senator, this behavior is suspicious.

But had the public actually cared they’d have spoken up and a different—perhaps smarter—solution could have been reached.

But they didn’t.

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