Viewpoints

Joe Mathews: Renting politicians? There should be an app for that

Lobbyists huddle outside the state Senate chambers as they wait to talk to legislators in September. Joe Mathews says there should be an app for regular people to access politicians.
Lobbyists huddle outside the state Senate chambers as they wait to talk to legislators in September. Joe Mathews says there should be an app for regular people to access politicians. The Associated Press

California-based companies like Uber and Airbnb claim to be remaking the world according to the Silicon Valley values of sharing and leveraging networks. But in politics, these companies have been less ambitious, confining themselves to lobbying for less regulation of their companies.

So I offer a modest proposal. To democratize our politics, we need an Uber that connects us to politicians in the language they understand best – money.

The political-influence business – including campaign donations and lobbying – is an industry not unlike taxis or hotels. It’s a regulated monopoly that serves too few people at too high a cost. Government is so complicated that, when we need something from it, it’s awfully hard to know, without an expensive lobbyist on retainer, whom to approach. And buying access has become more costly, so fewer people and interests account for more of our campaign contributions.

In California, the problem is particularly severe, since we have so many billionaires who can buy access, and relatively few politicians. State senators each represent 10 times more people than the national average, for instance.

But don’t be frustrated. This is the perfect opportunity for a Silicon Valley solution.

Most of us don’t need or even want to own a politician. But almost everyone has moments when it would be helpful to rent one. My new app, Rent-A-Pol, will eliminate this inefficiency and allow millions of people to buy the access and political favors they need.

It’s very much like hailing a ride from Uber. You have a moment when you require help from a government official – maybe you’d like the right pol to write you a letter, return your call, fight a regulation, call a hearing or introduce legislation. You just use the app to inform the politician of your needs, and then they let you know what the price will be, either in campaign donations or government fees.

Sure, we’d have to tweak existing laws that define and criminalize corruption, but the end result would be more efficient and transparent than the disingenuous status quo in which pols do what their big donors want, and everyone denies any quid pro quo.

The winners under Rent-A-Pol won’t just be the citizens who get what they want, or the politicians who get more campaign money from a broader base. We all win, because of the system’s outright transparency. We’d be able to see the exact price it takes to accomplish certain official actions. (One likely result: Rent-A-Pol could decimate California’s lobbying industry.)

The app would provide accountability for these transactions via a 360-degree rating system. Not only could citizens rate their rented pols like your Uber driver, but pols would also be able to rate their customers, based on their reasonableness.

And Rent-A-Pol would be good for the state budget. The state could take a small cut of each transaction for the general fund (in a way similar to proposed taxes on marijuana favored by legalization advocates).

Of course, some brain-dead good government types will protest that this noble technological advance would condone bribery and sully our politics. These old-school types prefer new regulations that add to the costs of compliance and thus extend the influence-peddling monopoly of the rich.

I’m sorry, but the notion that government is not for sale is pretense. And many of the outdated anti-corruption laws we’d be tweaking are part of the same early 20th century reform movements as the health, occupational safety and labor laws that Uber has so easily flouted. Plus, do you really believe a U.S. Supreme Court that says money is a form of speech is going to disallow Rent-A-Pol?

The rich already buy what they want from government. Why not the rest of us?

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column. He can be reached at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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