Washington's Positive Feedback Money Loop

[ Posted Thursday, February 28th, 2008 – 16:38 UTC ]

A strange thing is going on in the flow of money into Washington politicians' coffers these days -- most of it is going to the Democrats. While Democrats and Republicans alike have noticed this effect (to their respective joy and horror), nobody ever points out that the system itself is designed around a fundamentally flawed principle: positive feedback. This may be part of the inherent nature of the system, meaning any proposals to fix it are going to be a radical re-thinking of the whole campaign donation system. But the process itself needs more attention, I think.

You'll have to forgive me for using technical engineering terms, so please allow me to define what I'm talking about. While the term "positive feedback" has evolved into a pop psychology term, it has its roots in engineering. A "feedback loop" is a device which is designed to control an automatic system of some sort.

Take, for example, an FM radio with a digital tuner. Now, in the olden days, a human being would twiddle a dial in order to tune in a station. The feedback was the person's ears -- when the station was strongest, you stopped fiddling with the dial. But then digital tuners came into being, where the process was automated. If you set such a receiver for 101.5, then it will automatically hunt around for the strongest signal near 101.5 (for various reasons, radio stations broadcasting on any frequency drift around a bit). It will then continue to follow the signal, and lock in to where it is strongest.

How it does that hunting is called a "feedback loop." It works continuously (the "loop" part) to see if the signal is strongest where it is or whether it should be adjusted ("feeding back" the result to the tuner). There are two ways to do this: negative feedback and positive feedback. On the surface, they look quite similar. In practice, however, one works beautifully and one does not.

Positive feedback means moving the frequency slightly in one direction. If the signal is stronger in that direction, this is fed back to the tuner, and another step in that direction is tested next. The tuner, in other words, moves towards the stronger signal.

Negative feedback means the opposite. Move the frequency slightly, and test whether the signal is weaker. Whichever way is weakest, the tuner moves away from that direction.

Like I said, on the surface they would both seem to work. But only negative feedback really does. Positive feedback leads to a wildly unstable system, where the frequency swings wider and wider, back and forth, from the strongest signal. Picture a car fishtailing on an icy road while turning. It's tough to get a fishtailing car back to a straight path, and the result is often a car in the ditch. That fishtailing happens whenever a system uses positive reinforcement.

Whew! OK, I'm hoping that wasn't too technical for the average reader to follow. Now consider the way that money flows to Washington -- to political parties in particular. When one party is seen as being the likely winner in the next election, the money tends to flow a lot more heavily in their direction. That's the way the system works, since big donors want to bet on a winning team. If they donate more heavily to Democrats, and the Democrats either sweep into power or consolidate their existing power, then they will likely get more bang for their buck.

The money goes towards the perceived stronger power in Washington, whether they are seen as a new wave of change, or as the status quo of incumbency.

Which brings up two amusing articles. The first is about how Republicans are whining that even though they are the ones standing up for the telecommunications companies (by giving them retroactive amnesty for illegally wiretapping Americans), the telecom money seems to be flowing heavier into Democratic campaign chests than into their paltry political pantries.

One is tempted to utter the words: "Well, boo hoo!" at this point, but seeing as how that would be unseemly, one will refrain. Ahem.

The second is even funnier. As Politico reports:

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) challenged Republicans on Tuesday to get off their "dead asses" and start raising money for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Once again, after reading the article's list of Republican fundraising woes, it's tempting to wallow in the schadenfreude of it all.

But getting excited because Democrats will have more money to campaign on (and thus a better chance of winning lots of down-ticket elections this November) misses the point. Because it is really saying "our side is better at reaping legalized bribes than their side this year."

I realize that condemning this system is easy, but reforming it is almost impossible. I'm a realist, in other words, when it comes to the chances of formulating a better system any time soon.

But that doesn't mean the attempt shouldn't be made. Because what happens (inevitably) to systems controlled by positive feedback is that they wildly oscillate out of control, until they ultimately wreck the system they are designed to control. So even during one of the wild swings (over to our side, for once), it is time to admit that the system itself is near broken (if not there already), and to begin the conversation about how to reform it in the future.


-- Chris Weigant


4 Comments on “Washington's Positive Feedback Money Loop”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I am not holding by breath for a change any time soon. Even with the so-called reforms that came with the McCain/Feingold bill there has been little improvement. In fact Sen. McCain himself is trying to back out of his promise to take public funds if he is the GOP candidate.

    Campaigning has become a big business in itself and there is just too much money involved not to mention jobs that those in the "campaign" industry are very happy to keep the status quo.


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    I am glad to see that the problem is recognized not as a GOP or a DEM problem, but as a POLITICS problem.

    As indicated, the Dems are just as adept at lining their pockets at the expense of the people they are supposed to represent..

    "Legalized Bribes".. I like that term. It's so damn appropriate and dead on ballz accurate..

    That's why I am kinda excited about an Obama presidency.. It's the best chance to really shake things up in DC and remind the entire town that it's a government OF the people and FOR the people..

    Then again, Obama could just be sale ol, same ol...

    Time will tell..


  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    I am also constrained to point out the blatant hypocrisy of the Democrats...

    While the castigate the Telecomms for being evil violators of the people's privacy out of one side of their mouths, they are thanking the Telecomms out the other side of their mouths for all the money that is being given...

    Someone remind me again, the difference between the DEM Party and the GOP??

    Cuz I just don't see it...


  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    But why should the GOP be whining??

    If they TRULY care about the Telecomms and about the help that the Telecomms will give to protect the country, they (the GOP) should be happy that the Telecomms are now bribing the Democrats...

    That way, the Dems will cave in "in the interests of the country" (of course :^/) and give the Telecomms all the protection they need....

    EVERYONE wins.... :D


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