Friday, March 09, 2007

Runaway Campaign Spending? Not So Much

Updated below

Good point by Atrios in a post about campaign finances:
I don't really think presidential campaigns cost all that much money. This is a big country and a national campaign requires a decent staff, a lot of travel, and, yes, television advertising. Add up what it costs to employ even a modest staff in dozens of states for a sustained period and you've already gotten to a pretty big number.
Commentators love to complain about "runaway campaign spending" and the "vast sums of money" now involved in politics, and television reporters have a way of enunciating any number that ends in "-illion" with great relish so as to imply that it is obscenely huge. Yet they rarely provide any actual context or comparison. For example, five minutes on Google yielded the following dollar figures:

U.S. retail jewelry sales (2006 est.): $44 billion
McDonalds store revenues, U.S. (2006 est.): $22 billion
U.S. theme park revenues (2205 est.): $10 billion
U.S. video game sales (2004 est.): $6.2 billion
Total cost of 2004 Presidential and Congressional election campaigns: $3.9 billion

The problem with election financing is not that the amount of money is so great. The problem is that (1) individual politicians have to raise this money through personal solicitations; (2) the process of fund-raising takes a lot of time and energy that government officials should really be spending on public business; (3) most of the money raised, naturally enough, comes from organizations and individuals that want to influence policy; and (4) certain specific interest groups (like big business) have a lot more money to spend than others, which tends to skew policy in their direction--not necessarily to the benefit of the country.

Taxpayer funding of elections could solve the problem by breaking these insidious links. And it would cost five or six dollars per taxpayer per year. Not so "vast" in my book.


A reader writes with this excellent point:
I feel that your comparison of national campaign spending to revenues from selected industries is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. Check out the attached report from AdAge, however. In 2004, Procter & Gamble and General Motors each spent more than $4 billion to advertise their products to American consumers--34 companies spent more than $1 billion each. Look at spending by category--political campaign spending is actually quite low compared to many consumer product categories.
Thanks, and keep those letters coming.

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