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Run chronicles a wildly improbable run for the White House by an independent candidate seeking to reform Congress. The book, which has earned the praise of James Fallows of the Atlantic, is now available in print and in every digital book format including the Kindle, Ipad, Sony E-Reader, and Nook (visit the buy the book page for more information).
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January 2006 – University of Chicago Magazine
The following profile of Noa Kalakaua appeared in the University of Chicago’s alumni magazine. In it, the popular economics professor admits he has toyed with the idea of leaving academia for politics. This was the only hint of Kalakaua’s outsized political ambitions until the inauspicious start to his political career.
Noa Kalakaua takes the pass, dribbles down court, and then slices toward the basket. At the last moment he slips a pass around the lone defender to his teammate, a philosophy major from the College, who drops in an easy lay-up.
Game over. Skins win.
Few here know the speedy guard who shows up for these pickup games is one of the most heralded young economists in the country. The most any of them know is that “he works over at the GSB [the Graduate School of Business].”
That’s exactly where Kalakaua heads after the game. He has meeting with one of his students, a first-year MBA candidate who’s struggling with the microeconomics class he teaches each quarter. Walking swiftly across campus in his blue jeans and hooded sweatshirt, Kalakaua looks more like the students he teaches than the leader of a burgeoning field of study in economics.
Kalakaua, who is only 33 years old, has been hailed by many as the grandfather of his field, which explores the connection between political contributions and the development of public policy. Voters and politicians have long complained about the perceived link between policy and pocketbooks. But until Kalakaua, no one had rigorously investigated it.
His findings are disturbing. “It’s a fact that money, usually in the form of campaign contributions, buys political influence,” Kalakaua says. “Politicians are dependent on contributions to finance reelection bids. They need the money and go to great lengths to ensure that donors get something in return so that they’ll keep giving. The result is that relatively small contributions have an undue influence on the direction of public policy.”
Kalakaua shares an example he discovered in his research to illustrate how it works. “We came across a young company in the Midwest that was trying to compete with a much larger established competitor. It should have been a David trouncing Goliath story. The young company had developed a product that was more efficient, cheaper, and better for the environment. Switching to the new company’s products could’ve saved Federal and State governments tens of millions of dollars. But the established competitor made at least $250,000 in contributions each year to politicians who controlled spending on these items. The young company, despite developing a better product, failed and went out of business.”
Kalakaua and colleagues from the Harris School of Public Policy [see sidebar] have, through previous research, proven this link exists. That work earned Kalakaua the prestigious John Bates Clark Medal, awarded annually to an economist under the age of 40 who has made a significant contribution to economic thought.
Kalakaua is now taking his work a step further by trying to quantify the effect of the pocketbook policy link. “It’s basically a tax,” Kalakaua says. “Every taxpayer in this country is paying extra so that certain politicians can be more easily reelected.”
Today, no one knows the exact size of the tax. Kalakaua wants to change that. He hopes the answer will inspire the American people to demand change. “Much of our government operates on a system of widely sanctioned bribery and we all suffer because of it,” Kalakaua says. “It’s very inefficient. And it’s filthy. But today no one cares.”
He thinks putting a dollar figure on the waste may change that. Kalakaua isn’t aiming for publication in a prestigious economic journal. “I hope to spread this research far and wide. It’s great if economists read about this. But I want ordinary Americans, doctors, teachers, lawyers, truck drivers to know what’s going on. This will never change unless those people demand change. And they won’t demand change unless they understand the issues. But it must change.”
Kalakaua is passionate about the subject. When he speaks about it, he sounds like a reform minded politician on the campaign trail.
Kalakaua admits he has toyed briefly with the idea of leaving academia for politics. “It’s really just toying, though. I think it’s very hard for anyone to be elected to a legislative position in the federal government without giving up most all of their integrity. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how someone could do it, but I haven’t come up with an answer.”
Kalakaua believes the country must change. He believes the consistent overspending, misspending, and lack of legislative and regulatory focus by the United States Congress could contribute to, or even cause, a major economic crisis. And he wants to change that. Desperately. Unlike many, Kalakaua believes he can accomplish more from the sidelines, working as an academic, than from the trenches. “As a researcher,” he says, “I am completely free and independent to look for the best answers and solutions. Unfortunately, that’s not true for most politicians.”