Tuesday, June 2, 2015

I gave Jeff Merkley $5000. This could work out well for people and animals!

This is the fifth year that I've donated $5000 to Jeff Merkley, who represents Oregon in the US Senate. I do this because he has the right outlook on issues from global poverty to intellectual property to animal welfare, and he's a brilliant legislative strategist who can use my contributions to make the Democratic Party better on these and other issues. I've just spent a weekend with him and some staffers and supporters, and I'll have some information about that here too.

First, here's how the donations work: I give to his Leadership PAC, which is a fund from which he gives to other Democrats for their campaigns. This helps them get elected, and makes them more likely to do what he says later on. So contributing to his Leadership PAC gets more Democrats elected, and gets them following someone who will lead them in the right direction on a wide range of issues.

I suggest giving to Leadership PACs if you want to support a party and also support particular policy options and leaders within that party. You can also help your favorite candidates by directly donating to them through the internet, but your contribution might not move them in any particular direction on issues because they don't know what exactly you want them to do. Also, you might not be following Congress closely enough to suggest a clever plan to achieve your goals by voting a particular way on a particular procedural motion on a particular amendment. But Jeff is a Senator who's in a social and epistemic position to suggest highly detailed and specific plans. So I can get the party organized to act effectively on important issues by putting money in his hands.

A side benefit is that I get to hang out with Jeff, his staff, and some donors at a fundraiser every year. These events are usually set up to show off cool stuff in the Senator's home state. In Oregon that's Portland and the Oregon wine country, both of which are beautiful. One isn't supposed to talk to the media about these events, but I want to give my friends a bit of a taste for what goes on at these things, so what I say will be somewhat cryptic and involve silly nicknames for some people involved.

For the most part, I talk with people at fundraisers like I'm at a philosophy conference, asking them what they do, learning about their work, and telling them about my work if they're curious. Sometimes when they're working on an issue where I have an idea, I tell them about it (I try to chat with labor union folks about monetary policy, since they want more jobs and the Fed has tremendous power over total employment). Last year I showed some campaign staffers political science research on how to raise voter turnout. This year one of them told me that the Oregon Democratic Party had done some of the things that the research suggested! For a philosopher, that's an unusual level of immediate impact.

Early in the fundraiser is a nice dinner during which people stand up and introduce themselves and briefly say how they or their organization support the Senator. I explain that I'm a philosophy professor who cares about global poverty issues, and recount how Jeff won me over by clearly stating the case for third world debt relief during a conference call in 2008. I often get a round of applause, because people recognize the importance of reducing global poverty, even if they don't have any clear idea how to do it.

I got a great surprise when I was done talking this time -- Jeff got up and said that now that he's on the Senate Foreign Appropriations Committee, he'll be in good position to make progress on that! By the end of the fundraiser, I'd mentioned GiveWell to him as an excellent public source of quantitative information about how to reduce global poverty. At another point I was telling people about guinea worm while food was being served, and another donor understandably suggested that I talk about something else. But overall, I've been very impressed with the reception these issues get here and I hope Jeff's new committee assignment enables him to help very poor people on an epic scale.

I didn't expect to bring up animal welfare issues during this fundraiser, but at one point during dinner Jeff told me about work he'd done on the Agriculture Committee to prevent neonicotinoid pesticides from killing bees and other wildlife that pollinate plants. I couldn't resist expressing concern about the ag-gag bills that agribusiness is trying to pass to block people from recording and displaying brutal conditions in factory farms. If I have any ability to read Jeff's immediate enthusiastic nodding, having him as ranking Democrat on the Agriculture committee could be very good for animals.

I wish my friends who focus on police brutality issues could've seen my conversation with the Chief of Staff, who hails from one of the cities where a notorious shooting occurred. As we were talking about how Hillary Clinton and other Democrats approach these issues, he was laying out the gruesome details of the shooting and describing how one of the officers escaped punishment on a technicality. It was a sign that passion on these issues isn't limited to the Democratic grassroots, and that it's pervading the party as a whole.

One of my favorite perennial guests is someone I call Ancient Democratic Insider. On basically any issue (civil rights? science policy? financial regulation?) he's done some highly placed and helpful work over the past five decades. Shortly after I met him this time, he was telling another DC person about something that needed to be done quickly to outflank more Wall-Street-oriented Democrats and set up tougher financial regulation. I'm sure that plenty of Democratic insiders push the other way on these issues, but I'm glad to be supporting the Senator at whose fundraiser the conversations go this way. I also talked with him and the Chief of Staff about how to solve general problems Democrats are facing with congressional district maps, about which I'll probably put up a full-length post soon.

I'll close with a note on Jeff. I've described his legislative achievements a few times in past writing, so I won't add to those points here. But I've been meeting up with him for five years now, and I'm always sort of amazed by his lack of ego. In a business with lots of self-important people, he's a thoughtful, laid-back, modest guy whose sense of humor typically involves gentle understatement. Really this shouldn't matter too much to me -- I'd support a jerk if it were the best way to help poor people. But it feels better that I don't have to do that. 

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