The current economic recovery from the Great Recession of 2008 has been the weakest recovery since World War II. The average annual growth of our economy since the recession officially ended in June 2009 has been only 2.1%. [1] The other ten recoveries since 1949 have had annual growth rates of 2.8% to 7.6%, with an average of 4.65%. [2]

It’s not a coincidence that every other economic recovery since WWII was supported by increased government spending (federal, state, and local combined), except the one in 1970 – 1973. The current recovery (2009 – 2016) has seen government spending actually decline by 6.1%. It and the one in the 1970s both experienced declines in government spending of about 1% annually. The 1949 – 1953 recovery saw government spending increase at an annual rate of 17.9%, while the other eight recoveries averaged a little over 2%.

In contrast to the 6.1% decline (-0.9% annually) in government spending during the current recovery, government spending during the 2001 – 2007 recovery under President George W. Bush grew by 11.7% (1.9% annually) and during the 1982 – 1990 recovery under President Reagan it grew by 33.5% (3.8% annually).

A recession is defined as a period of time when economic output (i.e., Gross Domestic Product [GDP]), incomes, employment, industrial production, and sales decline. This occurs when the demand for goods and services in our markets – the spending of households, businesses, and governments – is not sufficient to purchase everything the economy is capable of producing.

The remedy for a recession is to boost marketplace demand. There are three ways to do this:

  • Reduce interest rates to spur borrowing and resultant spending,
  • Increase government spending, and
  • Cut taxes to spur spending by consumers, which increases demand for goods and services. (Consumer spending represents two-thirds of our economy.)

At the start of the Great Recession, interest rates were already very low so there was not much interest rate reduction that could be done. Currently, the basic interest rates of the Federal Reserve, the key ones to cut to stimulate the economy, are virtually zero.

Some cutting of taxes was done, but it was small scale because of concerns about increasing the federal deficit or creating unmanageable losses of revenue at the state level. Tax cuts for middle and low income Americans are the most effective stimulus for the economy because this group will quickly spend the increased money that’s in their pockets in the local economy. Tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations, which were favored by some politicians, are less effective because larger portions of this money will be saved or spent outside the local economy (e.g., overseas), so they are not as effective in stimulating the local economy.

As noted above, government spending decreased during the current recovery and therefore reduced economic growth. Spending in the economy, including government spending, has what’s referred to as a “multiplier effect” on growth. That’s because each dollar spent supports additional spending by the individual or business that received it (a cycle that is repeated endlessly), meaning that its impact is multiplied. Similarly, cuts in spending have a multiplier effect in reducing growth, reducing economic activity by more than a dollar for each dollar of reduced spending.

One reflection of reduced government spending is that the number of government employees today is roughly 400,000 fewer than it was at the beginning of the recovery in June 2009, after bottoming out in late 2013 at 800,000 less than in 2009. Each person without a job adds to unemployment and reduces consumer demand for goods and services. Prior to President Obama’s term, the total number of government employees had grown under every president since Eisenhower. [3] This loss of jobs has been primarily at the state and local levels, where government revenue was hard hit by the recession, has been slow to recover, and has not been augmented by increased funding from the federal government. Government spending per resident in the U.S. is 3.5% lower today than it was in 2009. [4]

This austerity (i.e., reductions in government spending) are widely viewed as the primary reason the current economic recovery has been so weak and so slow. Government spending cuts have occurred largely because Republican lawmakers at the federal and state levels have insisted on them. [5] If it weren’t for these cuts, economic growth would be stronger and our economy would have lower unemployment and under-employment. [6] To confirm the harm that austerity policies cause, one can look to Europe and especially Greece, where austerity policies even more extreme than the ones in the U.S. have resulted in continuing high unemployment and fiscal crises.

Government spending, even if it increases the federal government’s budget deficit in the short-term, will stimulate economic growth. This growth will lead to increased government revenue that will reduce the deficit.

In particular, spending that represents investments in our physical and human capital has a high rate of return and pays for itself over the long-term. [7] Investments in infrastructure (e.g., roads, bridges, trains, public transportation systems, and school buildings) and education (from birth through higher education) create jobs, support our current and future economies, and address real needs while also stimulating the economy. Especially with the extremely low interest rates at which the federal government can currently borrow money, it is a lost opportunity to fail to make important and needed investments in our future.

[1]       Morath, E., & Sparshott, J., 7/29/16, “U.S. GDP grew at a disappointing 1.2% in second quarter,” The Wall Street Journal (

[2]       Scott, R.E., 8/2/16, “Worst recovery in postwar era largely explained by cuts in government spending,” Economic Policy Institute, Working Economics Blog (

[3]       Walsh, B., 8/5/16, “Here’s an Obama-era legacy no one wants to talk about,” The Huffington Post (

[4]       Bivens, J., 8/11/16, “Why is recovery taking so long – and who’s to blame?” Economic Policy Institute (

[5]       Bivens, J., 8/11/16, see above

[6]       Scott, R.E., 8/2/16, see above

[7]       Scott, R.E., 8/2/16, see above


The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is blocking two mergers, each of which would combine two of the five largest health insurance corporations in America. Aetna and Humana have plans to merge as do Anthem and Cigna. As a result, the big five health insurers would become three, reducing competition and choice for consumers, and, presumably, increasing the cost of health insurance. As I’ve written about in previous posts (here, here, and here), huge corporations with near monopoly power are bad for our economy and our democracy.

It appears in this case that Aetna is using its marketplace and political power to attempt to blackmail the federal government into approving its merger. On August 15, Aetna announced that it will withdraw from 11 of the 15 state health insurance marketplaces (called exchanges) in which it currently participates. These exchanges were created by the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) and are where people without health insurance go to find and buy insurance.

Aetna claims it is dropping out of the exchanges because it cannot afford the losses it is experiencing on consumers from them. However, this is a dramatic reversal from the corporation’s statements four months ago when its CEO Mark Bertolini said that Aetna planned to stay in the exchanges and was “in a very good place to make this a sustainable program.” It appears the major reason for the shift was the DOJ’s decision to block its merger with Humana. [1]

Back in July, in a letter to the DOJ (obtained by The Huffington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request), Aetna CEO Bertolini stated that Aetna would reduce its participation in the health exchanges if the merger wasn’t approved. [2] Note that Bertolini would personally receive up to $131 million if the merger goes through [3] and that Aetna made a profit of $2.4 billion in 2015 on revenue of $60 billion.

The withdrawal of Aetna from the health insurance exchanges will force consumers to switch plans and will result in fewer choices and perhaps increased costs for Americans obtaining health insurance through the exchanges. Other health insurers, including regional Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, find their participation in the exchanges profitable or plan to continue their participation even if currently there are some losses. Obama Care has brought 20 million new consumers to the health insurers through its exchanges and subsidies.

Many people, including former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, are pointing to Aetna’s action as an example of the unhealthy amount of power that giant corporations have. More specifically, many health advocates are concerned about corporate power in the health care arena and are citing this as another example of corporations putting profit before people’s health. Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote that “The health of the American people should not be used as bargaining chips to force the government to bend to one giant company’s will.” [4]

The need for a publicly sponsored alternative (sometimes referred to as Medicare-for-All) to the private, generally for-profit, health insurers in the health insurance exchanges, is being put forth as the solution to counter the pitfalls of for-profit health insurance. [5]

Corporations shouldn’t have the power – which largely comes with size and near-monopoly market share – to effectively blackmail our federal, state, and local governments. These large health insurers and other huge corporations have amassed unhealthy amounts of power. Fortunately, the DOJ is blocking the two proposed mergers that would only make the situation worse.

The “laws” of economics (more accurately economic theory) assume that markets have multiple small suppliers of goods and services. Therefore, there would be real competition and consumer choice that could constrain market prices and companies’ behavior. Small is beautiful (to revive an old saying).

However, major, critical sectors of our economy have one or a very few large corporate suppliers. Aetna’s actions provide a poignant example of how corporate power can harm consumers, our economy, and democracy.

[1]       Bryan, B., 8/17/16, “Now we know the real reason Aetna bailed on Obamacare,” Business Insider (

[2]       Cohn, J., & Young, J., 8/17/16, “Aetna CEO threatened Obamacare pullout if Feds opposed Humana merger,” The Huffington Post (

[3]       Knight, N., 8/17/16, “Sanders: Aetna’s Obamacare threat shows what ‘corporate control looks like’,” Common Dreams (

[4]       Knight, N., 8/17/16, see above

[5]       McCauley, L., 8/16/16, “Aetna’s greed proves that Medicare-for-All is the best solution,” Common Dreams (


Big money and secret money in our election campaigns undermines democracy. They can prevent voters from knowing who, with what interests, is trying to influence their votes. They can also unduly influence the decisions of our elected officials and lead to outright corruption. (See my previous posts here and here for more detail.)

There are two main strategies for blunting the impact of big money and secret money in our elections:

  • Disclosure of campaign contributions and spending in a complete and timely manner, and
  • Matching of voters’ small campaign contributions with public funding, coupled with strict limits on who can contribute and how much can be contributed.

Both of these strategies have been reviewed and approved by the current Supreme Court.

Three-quarters of Americans, including three-quarters of those in each political party, support disclosure of campaign spending. A number of states, including California, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, and Montana have strengthened disclosure requirements in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. There are proposals in Congress to enhance disclosure for federal campaigns.

California requires any group spending more than $50,000 in a year on political activities to disclose all donors giving over $1,000. In addition, it requires that political advertisements include the names of top funders. The success of these measures is reflected in the remarkably small increase in secret (aka dark) money in California elections. [1] In Montana, a bipartisan coalition enacted strong transparency laws for campaign spending after large amounts of out-of-state dark money were spent in their elections.

A Brennan Center report [2] identifies key provisions of an effective state campaign spending disclosure law:

  • Require disclosure of all donors by all groups that spend any significant amount of money in campaigns;
  • Require disclosure by organizations that provide substantial funding to groups making significant campaign expenditures;
  • Require disclosure for all political advertising spending in a specified window before an election (e.g., a few months to a year), including issue ads (that don’t explicitly advocate for a vote for or against a candidate);
  • Require up-to-date disclosure frequently, including just before an election and in advertisements themselves;
  • Require disclosure of the individual(s) controlling any group making significant campaign expenditures; and
  • Make penalties for violations substantial but proportional to the severity of the violation.

Disclosure helps voters know who is trying to influence their votes and the election, and lets them take into account the interests of the spenders, although it does not directly affect the funding of campaigns.

Matching voters’ small campaign contributions with public funding makes small contributions more valuable to candidates. Given that the Supreme Court’s decisions (e.g., Citizens United and McCutcheon) do not allow laws limiting campaign contributions outright, this alternative amplifies the voices and influence of small donors. It can also require candidates to voluntarily limit campaign spending and the size of contributions in exchange for the public matching funds.

New York City has had a campaign financing system in place since 1988 that matches small donations with public funding. Currently, it offers a six-to-one match on donations up to $175 by city residents. An ordinary citizens making a donation of $50 or $100 now has the clout of a much larger contribution – $350 or $700, respectively – due to matching public funds. As a result, more people are donating, because their small contributions and voices are amplified. And this leads to higher voter turnout on Election Day. [3]

Candidates’ participation in this contribution matching system is voluntary. In exchange for the public matching funds, candidates agree to abide by limits on overall spending and the size of individual contributions. These limits vary with the office being sought, from Mayor to City Council. In 2013, 92% of NYC’s candidates participated in the public matching funds system. For the candidates who did participate, 61% of their funding came from small donors. Conversely, for the candidates who did not participate, 53% of their funding came from large donors of $1,000 or more. [4]

The system has changed candidates’ attitudes and approach to the voting public. It has muted the importance of large contributions. It has motivated more citizens to run for office and made races more competitive. Candidates spend less time fundraising and can, therefore, be more engaged with and responsive to their constituents.

The states of Maine, Connecticut, and Arizona have similar contribution matching systems in place. Washington, D.C., is considering implementing such a system. There are proposals in Congress that would create a similar system for our national elections.

I encourage you to contact your elected officials and ask them to take action now to blunt the impact of big money and secret money in our elections. Strengthening disclosure of the sources of funding for campaign spending is one step to take. Another is to enact a system for matching voters’ small contributions to candidates with public funding. Both of these would make our elections more democratic and can be done now within the constraints of the Supreme Court’s rulings.

[1]       Lee, C., & Norden, L., 6/25/16, “The secret power behind local elections,” The New York Times

[2]       Lee, C., Valde, K., Brickner, B.T., & Keith, D., 2016, “Secret spending in the states,” The Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (

[3]       Migally, A., & Liss, S., 2010, “Small donor matching funds: The NYC election experience,” The Brennan Center for Justice (

[4]       McElwee, S., 6/23/16, “D.C.’s white donor class: Outsized influence in a diverse city,” Demos (


The growth of secret money in state and local elections means that voters know less and less about who is working to influence their votes and the outcomes of their elections. Secret money is money spent by organizations that do not have to report their funding sources. Therefore, it is referred to as “dark” money. Most of this money is spent by social welfare non-profits (i.e., 501(c)(4) organizations) and trade or industry associations (e.g., the Chamber of Commerce or the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America association, 501(c)(6) organizations). Based on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, these groups can spend unlimited amounts of money on advertising and other campaign activities as long as it is independent of a candidate’s campaign, although the independence of such spending is often very questionable.

As I noted in my previous post, big money may have more impact in state and local elections than in federal ones. For example, a race for school board or a state’s public utilities commission costs much less than a race for federal office and gets much less media coverage. State ballot questions are also frequent targets of dark money spending. In such low-cost, low-information elections, it can be relatively easy to sway voters, particularly in non-partisan elections where party affiliation does not serve as a guidepost for voters.

These elections can have significant financial consequences, often for a narrow but economically significant constituency. A utility commission, for example, makes decisions that can effect energy corporations’ profits and homeowners’ electricity rates. Dark money at the state and local levels frequently comes from corporations and other special interests that have a direct and immediate stake in the outcome of the election, whereas at the federal level the outside spending tends to be more ideologically or party focused.

For less than $100,000, a corporation or wealthy individual can have a significant impact on a state or local election. When there is a significant self-interest at stake, this is a modest business expense. On the other hand, for state or local candidates or community groups, such sums are dauntingly large.

By using dark money for its campaign spending, the corporation or wealthy individual can hide its identity so voters don’t know who is trying to influence their votes or about the self-interested nature of the spending. And a growing portion of the big money in state and local elections is dark money. The ability to significantly affect or even dominate an election with high stakes but without public transparency means significant conflicts of interest can be hidden and outright corruption is facilitated. [1]

The Brennan Center for Justice recently studied outside campaign spending (i.e., spending not by a candidate’s own campaign organization) in six diverse states with almost a fifth of the U.S. population (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, and Massachusetts). [2] It examined dozens of state and local elections in these states. It found that the amount of dark money spent in 2014 was 38 times what was spent in 2006, a rate of increase greater than that for federal elections. It also found that in 2006 76% of the outside spending was fully transparent – that the true identities of the donors was known to voters as they voted. In 2014, only 29% of outside spending was fully transparent.

In Arizona’s 2014 election for two utility commissioners, $3.2 million was spent by dark money groups. This was more than double what all six candidates’ campaigns combined spent and was almost 50 times the amount of dark money spent in the 2012 election. After the election, it was learned that the source of the money was the state’s largest private utility, Arizona Public Service, which didn’t like the state’s requirement that it buy power from homeowners’ solar panels that the homeowners didn’t need. (This is called net metering.) After the candidates the dark money supported were elected, the Commission shifted its stance from actively encouraging homeowner-generated solar power to making it more costly for homeowners.

In Mountain View, CA, a group calling itself the Neighborhood Empowerment Coalition spent $83,000 in dark money in the 2014 city council election. This was more than half of the combined total of what all nine candidates’ campaigns spent. Land use and housing policy were prominent issues in the election in this community where property values and rents have soared. After the election, the voters learned that the coalition was funded by a PAC linked to the country’s largest property owners association and its goal was to prevent the establishment of rent control. The newly elected councilors did not enact rent control.

In the Utah attorney general’s race in 2012, after the election it was learned that an aide to the winner had arranged for payday lenders to fund $450,000 in dark money advertising in exchange for a promise to shield them from consumer protection laws. The attorney general resigned after less than a year in office due to this and other revelations.

Compounding the problem of dark money is the recent growth of “gray” money. This is money spent by organizations such as Political Action Committees (PACs) that are required to disclose their donors, but where the identities of the true donors are hidden. PACs can receive donations from other PACs or organizations and sometimes these organizations are set up to obscure identification of the original donor. Donations can pass through a succession of multiple organizations to obfuscate the true source. This is political money laundering. Furthermore, some of these donor organizations may be “dark” organizations that do not have to disclose their donors. Donations from dark organizations to PACs have grown from less than $200,000 in 2006 to $9.2 million in 2014 in the six states studied by the Brennan Center. Gray money grew from 15% of all outside spending in 2006 to 59% in 2014. [3]

The impact of big money and dark money in state and local elections is undermining democracy by allowing special interests to impact election outcomes and to do so secretly. The potential for outright corruption is clear.

In my next post, I will share some effective steps that can be taken now to address the problems of big money and dark money in state and local elections; ones that can be taken within the constraints of current Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Citizens United and McCutcheon).

[1]       Lee, C., & Norden, L., 6/25/16, “The secret power behind local elections,” The New York Times

[2]       Lee, C., Valde, K., Brickner, B.T., & Keith, D., 2016, “Secret spending in the states,” The Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law (

[3]       Lee, C., Valde, K., Brickner, B.T., & Keith, D., 2016, see above


Big money may have a bigger effect on state and local elections than federal ones. Most of my past posts on campaign finance have focused on spending on races for federal offices (here, here, here, and here). However, state and local races are less expensive and get less media attention, so some big money can have a really big impact. I have written about this before (here). Here are a couple more examples of big money’s role at the state and local level.

Missouri is one of the few states with no limits on campaign contributions directly to candidates. There are four candidates in the Republican primary for Governor. Each of the four has received over $1 million from a single source. One campaign has received almost $5 million from the candidate’s own fortune. In two cases, an individual or family (other than the candidate) has given a million or more to the gubernatorial candidate while also giving millions more to other candidates or political action committees (PACs). [1]

This big money is drowning out the voices of the average voter. It creates conflicts of interest for the candidate who is elected as these large donors have interests that are affected by policy decisions. One of the Missouri million-dollar donors is a strong advocate for repealing all Missouri taxes. He would clearly disproportionately benefit from steps in that direction while the average Missouri resident would suffer the loss of the government’s ability to support infrastructure and programming. Another of the million-dollar donors is a strong opponent of unions. Policies that weaken unions would benefit him as a business owner while hurting workers.

In the Washington, D.C., mayor’s race, the amounts aren’t as dramatic, but campaign donors of $1,000 or more are providing the bulk of campaign money. These large donors are not representative of the electorate; they are disproportionately white and male, and, of course, rich. Overall, for the three candidates in the 2014 race, two-thirds of all the money raised came from donors giving $1,000 or more. Less than 2% came from donors giving $50 or less – an amount that might be affordable for the average voter. [2]

While only 37% of D.C.’s population is white, 62% of donors to the mayoral race were white. In terms of gender, 69% of those giving more than $1,000 were male, although 54% of D.C.’s adults are women.

After the election, the winner created a PAC that took advantage of a loophole in election laws that allowed unlimited donations in non-election years. This Mayor’s PAC took in many $10,000 contributions, many from those with interests in policy and contracting decisions made by the city. An investigation into the PAC found that 11 of its largest donors received $70 million in city contracts.

Big campaign contributions by wealthy donors result in decisions and policies that disproportionately favor the white, male, wealthy, donor class. For example, Washington, D.C., has enacted a series of tax cuts, including a cut in the estate tax, that will largely benefit the wealthy, despite the city’s high poverty rate (18%) and high income inequality. The city also recently announced it will spend $55 million to build a new practice facility for the Washington Wizards basketball team. The wealthy team owner will contribute only $5 million to construction costs and an additional $10 million for community benefits. The city also gave $60 million in tax breaks to a consulting company to keep it from moving to Virginia. The company promised to hire 1,000 D.C. residents, but these jobs likely would have gone to D.C. residents in any case.

Big money is invading state and local elections as well as federal elections. It can have greater effects on the elections at the state and local levels due to smaller campaign spending and less media coverage. And its effects on government decisions and policies can be more immediate and easier to identify.

Subsequent posts will look at the invasion of secret money (where the true donor is obscured) into state and local campaigns. They will also present ways to address the problems of big and secret money in our elections within the constraints of current Supreme Court decisions (e.g., Citizens United and McCutcheon).

[1]       Miller, J., 7/20/16, “This is what happens when a state has no contribution limits,” The American Prospect (

[2]       McElwee, S., 6/23/16, “D.C.’s white donor class: Outsized influence in a diverse city,” Demos (