Thursday, November 29, 2012

When is spending "obscene"?

Yesterday at the Monkey Cage, Josh Tucker complained that analogizing $6 billion in campaign advertising to $6 billion spent on potato chips is improper. Jonathan Bernstein defended the analogy, arguing that it promotes numeracy by helping people understand large quantities. I'm going to take Bernstein's side here, but not just for the reasons he articulates.

The real problem here is that large amounts of campaign spending, regardless of what exactly they go towards and how many voters are involved, are routinely labeled as excessive and "obscene." A Google search of "campaign" "spending" and "obscene" yields more than 3 million hits! Examples:
  • Colbert King: "The total cost of the 2012 presidential and congressional races [was] an estimated $6 billion. That makes this the most obscene display of campaign spending in history."
  • Robert Oak: "The spending was obscene."
  • Former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew: "The system we have for financing campaigns is obscene."
There are plenty more.

Now, needless to say, our campaign finance system doesn't come close to the legal definition of "obscene." But let's just say that the critics mean something along the lines of "morally repugnant." Why? Coca Cola spent roughly $11 billion this year on advertising, yet we rarely hear this described in such terms. After all, that's just commerce. But compare the two for a moment. Campaign advertising involves wealthy people giving money to media consultants and local television stations to run ads that provide information about public officials and encourage people to vote. Coca Cola advertising involves a similar transfer of money to encourage people to purchase and ingest a particular sugar drink (not the competitor's sugar drink, of course) that will probably shorten the consumer's life. Why is the former obscene but the latter just part of commerce? Yes, campaign advertising probably involves some deception or spin. Whereas soft drink advertising is completely honest?

Now, when I discussed this topic on a talk show with former Colorado state senator Ken Gordon a few months ago, he portrayed campaign spending as bribery. Yes, if campaign spending is bribery, then by God, $6 billion is too much! $100 is too much! But it's not bribery. What exactly are the people who donated over $600 million to Barack Obama this year getting in return, other than a Democratic president who continues to advance and protect a mainstream Democratic agenda? How exactly would Obama's millions of donors cash in? What influence has been purchased? And what do Romney's donors have to show for their investment today?

It escapes me why campaign spending, which is essentially a short term civics education program funded voluntarily by the nation's wealthiest people, is considered obscene. But as long as it is, it is helpful to have comparisons to similar levels of spending on things like potato chips, frozen yogurt, soft drink advertisements, or Halloween candy -- things for which we see a considerably lower return.


  1. If you accept Larry Bartels' findings that politicians are very responsive to rich constituents, and not responsive at all to poor ones, then it seems that donors may be getting quite a lot. After all, the wealthy give most of the money. I'm not arguing that the system is 100% corrupt, that it's only a marketplace where the wealthy can override the preferences of the poor and secure favorable treatment. But to deny that this is part of campaign finance is to miss a large chunk of what's going on.

  2. I accept Bartels' finding, but I had attributed that to higher income constituents being generally more attuned to politics and more active politically. Yes, that includes making donations, but it also more generally includes voting, following the news, discussing politics with friends, etc., such that disappointing a wealthy constituent is more politically costly than disappointing a poorer one.

    1. But wouldn't a significant portion (not all, but some) of that cost come from lower donations, or the fear thereof?

    2. I guess that depends what we mean by significant. According to the 2008 NES, about 9% of Americans donated to campaigns, and about 18% of those making $100K or more donated. So that's not trivial; wealthier people are more likely to donate. But we're still talking about just 1 in 5.

  3. Ah, but you're just narrowly focusing on the majority opinions in Roth & Miller to come up with your legal definition of obscentity!

    If we apply Potter Stewart's definition ("I know it when I see it"), then campaign finance fits that perfectly. As, of course, does advertising for Pepsi, in that its advertising the completely wrong sugar drink!