In it for the Money: C.R.E.A.M.

Voting to advance the Unfinished Work

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” opinion column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. Nelson is sort of a long-winded son-of-a-gun. If you want to read very short things by Nelson, more frequently than once a month, you can follow him on Twitter, where he’s @SquiDaveo

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

I voted to re-elect Barack Obama. I doubt that’s a terrible shocker, but I want to explain why I did so – and why, regardless of how the economy looks on Jan. 1, or next summer, or in four years, I will still be proud of that decision.

In the run-up to Nov. 6 we kept hearing – and by extension kept telling each other – that this election was “about the economy, stupid!” I beef with that claim, but don’t reject it entirely – certainly not so long as I’m writing under the banner of being “In It for the Money.”

A lot of Americans frame the American Dream as one of economic security. While economic security is obviously a vital component of the Dream, to see that as the whole Dream is – as I’ve sorta harped on in the past – more than a little sad. When Jefferson cribbed Locke for the Declaration of Independence, he revised those original unalienable rights from “life, liberty, and estate” to the often ironically snarked “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I doubt that was a typo.

Call me a sucker, but like Honest Abe, I believe in the Declaration of Independence as the fundamental expression of what our Unfinished Work [1] is all about – now in its 236th year. And, while you may need to bank some Estate in order to pursue that Happiness, it’s a bit shallow to argue that acquiring the Estate is the same thing as acquiring Happiness.

When I stood at the flimsy little voting station – a plastic tray with telescoping metal legs, set up in Allen Elementary School – I wasn’t there to vote for a smaller national debt or expanded social programs or lower taxes or higher unemployment. I was there to vote to advance our Unfinished Work.

And that meant filling in the bubble next to Obama/Biden. Let me explain.

An Experiment In Liberty And Equality

Back in 1790 the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island were a little anxious. Newport (at that time called “New Port,” because that’s just exactly what it was) had been largely a loyalist community, and was occupied by the British throughout the Revolution. Jews were not equal under British law. They wouldn’t be emancipated in the United Kingdom until the mid-1800s(!), and weren’t even precisely recognized citizens of the Crown. They were naturalized in Great Britain by the Jew Bill of 1753, but were then de-naturalized the following year due to public outcry. The bigotry under which they lived, as British subjects, was legally sanctioned and popularly supported.

These Jewish colonists had been treated well in New Port when it was a British Colony, but were understandably a bit more interested in being part of this experimental new national government “erected by the Majesty of the People.” When Washington swung through New Port on his post-election victory lap, the Jews of New Port wrote him a letter of support, signed by Moses Sexias [2].

Washington’s oft-quoted reply, which echoes Sexias’s turn of phrase, goes like so [emphasis mine]:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

That phrase, calling ours a government “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance” is my National Anthem. It makes my heart sing every time I come across it, and always has – even before I’d learned that it wasn’t just the gracious words of Our First President, but also the ardent articulation of the hopes of a bunch of my (largely anonymous) fellow Jews.

Improving the Unfinished Work

Lincoln nailed it when he called ours an Unfinished Work. When Washington bit the lines of Sexias, this bouncing baby nation still sanctioned plenty of bigotry and assisted in lots of persecution. Article IV, Section 2 of our damned Constitution assured slaves that there was no way they could outrun their involuntary servitude on U.S. soil, and would keep doing so right up until Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment.

Because I understand the Human Project to be one of fixing up a messy world [3], I’m sort of accustomed to Unfinished Work in need of incremental improvement. When I step into a voting booth, when I need to pick a president, I don’t ask myself, “Am I better off than I was four years ago?” [4] I ask myself, “Who brings us closer to being the thing we’re supposed to be: The Nation that gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance?”

And, I’m sorry, but there was no indication anywhere in the Romney/Ryan platform of our nation, under their leadership, even inadvertently stumbling toward giving bigotry less sanction. Meanwhile – and perhaps this sounds crass, but it’s just as true as a plumb bob – by dint of skin tone alone Barack Obama did more to move our national needle away from the “Sanctioned” end of the Bigotry dial than any living president. Add in his support of marriage equity, his abandoning of the Defense of Marriage Act and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” his championing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 and reproductive rights, and you have a president who has done more to de-sanction bigotry in this country than any in 150 years.

Before everyone I know and love freaks out and tears my head off because of Wall Street and “murder drones” and Bradley Manning and energy independence and the economy (stupid!) and Israel and Palestine and Libya and Syria and David Petraeus and everything else that isn’t gonna be under the Yule Tree this year, or next year, or the year after, listen: I’m not saying that the PotUS is a Magical Wish-Granting Negro come to make all of our Progressive dreams come true. I am saying that he’s a President of the United States of America and that, since George Washington’s inauguration in 1789, that job has primarily been about improving the Unfinished Work by moving us closer to Giving Bigotry No Sanction – even if the white, slave-owning Christians who started us down this road could hardly fathom how far we’d run with their flowery talk.

That is the job – not shepherding the economy, not brokering peace in the Fertile Crescent, not energy independence, not any of our pet projects. The job is to bring the nation we’ve got closer to being the Nation We Set Out For: The one that, like no other to ever grace this globe, Brings Justice to All.

Expanding The Electorate Expands Equality

Perhaps what’s most emblematic of the progress embodied by the Obama’s re-election is how he pulled it off. Often elections seem to focus almost exclusively on first solidifying support among the party faithful, and then with wooing “independents” (i.e., registered voters who show no party affiliation). What was extra-special about the Obama Campaign – and resulted in both a tidy majority in the popular vote and pretty stunning chunk of the Electoral College [5] – was how deeply it focused on expanding the electorate instead of wooing the independents. The campaign sought out citizens who were likely to support the president but had never voted before, and brought them into the conversation. From a marketing perspective, this is an entirely different activity from traditional campaigning, because you aren’t seeking to shift an existing behavior (“Buy Coke instead of Pepsi!”) but to create a new behavior (“Go to the gym instead of standing around drinking pop!”)

So, that’s one last nudge away from sanctioning bigotry and assisting persecution: Bringing the disenfranchised into the national conversation. I can think of nothing that better exemplifies what our democracy should be about than dropping millions of dollars on convincing people who don’t think their voice is valid or valuable that they need to join the conversation.

In the days following the election, as I heard both the Romney/Ryan campaign and Mitt Romney himself bemoaning – and even demonizing – this project of expanding the electorate, I was left to wonder what the hell country he thought we were living in. Just to review some basic American Civics: If you’re running for an elected position in a democracy and your opponent can rally more citizens who agree with his views than yours, it’s your views that are fucked up, not the People.

Cash Rules Everything Around Me? [6]

Our jaded election-season canard is that elections are bought, plain and simple. In or defense, this cynicism [7] seems to be born out by experience: Elections do tend to go the candidate who’s raised the most money, and it’s easy to construct a narrative whereby spending lots of money results in winning an election. [8]

We all grant the reality of the correlation between campaign spending and winning elections. But correlation isn’t causation. We can all imagine lots of possible mechanisms that would explain how high campaign spending could result in winning elections, but that by no means proves that spending all of that money causes a candidate to win an election. In fact, to the contrary, we’ve got decent evidence that it doesn’t.

Back in 2005 Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (last decade’s Nate Silvers) took this on in their book “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,” and their finding was that elections aren’t won because Candidate X raises and spends the most money, but instead that popular candidates are able to raise the most money. The cash doesn’t buy them votes, but is instead a signal of the votes that they are most assured of receiving. [9]

Every election cycle since 2005 Levitt and Dubner have taken a beating. People don’t like Levitt and Dubner’s “the money doesn’t matter” conclusion, and hasten to point out that if the money doesn’t matter, it’s weird that the candidates expend so much juice and burn so much karma separating us form our cash. And, to give the doubters their due, it’s hard to find clear-cut cases where the Fat Cat doesn’t seem to have at least possibly won by virtue of lucre.

Levitt and Dubner are (nominal) economists. They don’t have the opportunity to devise and run actual experiments and see what happens when, say, you take an emotionally neutral issue (like, oh, I dunno, maybe bridge construction) and run a well-funded campaign encouraging voters to make a terrible decision that no rational person would ever purposefully endorse. If the world of marketing is any indication, a well-funded ad campaign for something of dubious value trounces un-marketed healthy behavior every time, no mater how obvious the healthy choice is. [10]

Oh, wait a second – this year we ran just such an experiment, in the form of Matty Moroun’s odious Prop 6. One side spent upwards of $34 million to run wickedly manipulative video ads and a direct-mail campaign that will go down in the Annals of Excessive Advertising. On top of that, Moroun poured untold dollars (thousands? millions?) into running live phone banks (they called me – and argued with me! And wouldn’t frikkin drop it even as I got sorta spittle-flying-screamy!) and manning polling places on Election Day with folks handing out more misleading “literature.” On the other side, at most $100,000 was spent on a very modest video and print advertising campaign. [11] Maroun spent at least 340 times as much as his opponents – and yet Prop 6 was crushed.

Despite this excellent experiment in how much of an impact money really has on how people vote, I don’t imagine anyone will stop picking fights with the Freakonomics Boys any time soon – for two reasons. First, I think we like cynically carping about how it’s all crooked and that the votes are bought. We’ve made our electoral system into a sort of game show, and so we tune in for much the same reasons: To watch the money (and then to grouse about what a waste all that money was).

Secondly, believing that cash rules everything around us gives us an out. It makes us feel smart for not bothering to really participate – because we see through the bullshit, man. As long as we focus on just the cash-money – and the fact that someone other than you or me or my mom or your neighbor has most of it – we get to ignore our individual failures to bring that Unfinished Work a bit closer to completion. And we get to sidestep the basic question: What have we done to advance the Justice that we, as schoolchildren, pledged was for All?


[1] “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the Unfinished Work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

[2] Sexias was the the head of New Port’s Congregation Kahal Kadosh Yeshuat Israel, and the most pertinent bit of this letter reads:

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People – a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance – but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine.

[3] Please see tikkun olam for further details.

[4] Which has always struck me as an incredibly selfish way to think about government. Shit, I’m better off than I was four years ago, on balance, but plenty of folks I know aren’t, and plenty more continue to teeter on the brink. Is it really for the best that I vote my best interest? Is that the road to progress?

[5] Stunning in that it exceeded expectations despite census-driven changes in the apportionment of the Electoral College, which shifted about a dozen votes from traditionally blue states to red ones.

[6] Which is the Wu Tang Clan’s gloss of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and abbreviated “C.R.E.A.M.” For the curious, here’s my favorite remix of “C.R.E.A.M.”, which layers the lyrics over the Beatles’ “And I Love Here.”

[7] Still recalling that cynicism is cheap wisdom for dumb people.

[8] Something like “A candidate is a product, like anything else. Whoever raises the most money has the biggest advertising budget and can run the most ads, and thus get the most people to ‘buy’ their product – everyone in the world knows who Ronald McDonald is, and it isn’t because that clown makes the best burger or fries in any given locale.”

Incidentally, when people let this assumption go unquestioned and then defend it when challenged, it sorta makes me wonder if they’re really stupid, or if they think everyone else in the world is really stupid. I mean, is it too much to credit our fellow citizens with just maybe treating their choice of president with a little more gravity than their choice of value meal?

Anyway, if you’re really interested in the myriad ways that this kind of “narrative thinking” leads us astray, check out “The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain” by Daniel Gardner.

[9] How Levitt and Dubner came to this conclusion is a bit too nitty-gritty for me to summarize here – I suggest reading the book, or just hitting this recent interview with one of the authors, which offers a nice, tidy summary of their findings.

[10] Just one quick e.g.: It wasn’t until we mounted huge anti-smoking ad campaigns – and curtailed cigarette advertising via government regulation – that we began to chisel away at a behavior that we’d know for decades was basically a death sentence. See also drunk driving and M.A.D.D.

[11] Incidentally, I’ve yet to meet anyone who saw any anti-Prop 6 material; did you? Did that money even get spent?

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  1. By Barbara Carr
    November 28, 2012 at 5:38 pm | permalink

    Dear David Erik Nelson,
    I don’t know who you are, or what academic disciplines you study, but I LOVE this essay. THANK YOU.

  2. By Steve Bean
    November 28, 2012 at 7:28 pm | permalink

    The Sexias quote reminded me of “Every Picture Tells A Story”, also by someone in it for the money, it’s been said.

    The Governments I’ve known, I wouldn’t let tie my shoes… ;-)

  3. By Alan Benard
    November 30, 2012 at 1:16 am | permalink

    It was disturbing to say the least to have to choose between a White supremacist and a war criminal this time around. But while the White supremacist was certain to become a war criminal at this first opportunity, the reverse seemed far more remote.