Politics & Law

Only $4.2 billion to buy this election?

Robert Reich

This, from the Washington Post’s conservative pundit George Will:

Total spending by parties, campaigns and issue-advocacy groups concerning every office from county clerks to U.S. senators may reach a record $4.2 billion in this two-year cycle. That is about what Americans spend in one year on yogurt, but less than they spend on candy in two Halloween seasons. Proctor & Gamble spent $8.6 billion on advertising in its last fiscal year.

Those who are determined to reduce the quantity of political speech to what they consider the proper amount are the sort of people who know exactly how much water should come through our shower heads — no more than 2.5 gallons per minute, as stipulated by a 1992 law. Is it, however, worrisome that Americans spend on political advocacy — determining who should make and administer the laws — much less than they spend on potato chips, $7.1 billion a year?

In a word, Mr. Will, yes.

The number of dollars spent isn’t the issue; it’s the lopsidedness of where the dollars come from. Even if the total were only $1000, democracy would be endangered if $980 came from large corporations and wealthy individuals. The trend is clear and worrisome: The great bulk of campaign money is coming from a narrower and narrower circle of moneyed interests.

Anyone who doubts the corrupting effect has not been paying attention. Our elected representatives have been acutely sensitive to the needs of Wall Street bankers, hedge-fund managers, and the executives of big pharma, big oil, and the largest health insurance companies. This is not because these individuals and interests are particularly worthy or specially deserving. It is because they are effectively bribing elected officials with their donations. Such donations are not made out of charitable impulse. They are calculated investments no less carefully considered than investments in particular shares of stock. They are shares in our democracy.

Why $4.2 billion and not ten times that amount? Because the high-rolling political investors don’t need to spend a dollar more in order to exert overwhelming influence.

This figure, by the way, leaves out the tens of billions of dollars dedicated to lobbying, lawyering, and public relations — all of which deliver specific legislative outcomes the campaign money fuels. The economy of Washington, D.C. depends on this gigantic flow of funds (supporting the polished facades of refurbished hotels, fancy restaurants, trendy bistros, office complexes of glass and polished wood, well-appointed condos, hotels with marble-floored lobbies and thick rugs, restaurants serving $75 steaks and offering $400 magnums of vintage French wine.) Washington’s seven suburban counties are listed by the Census Bureau as among the nation’s twenty with the highest per-capital incomes.

Failing to include this larger apparatus in an estimate for how much money now greases the legislative skids is analogous to estimating the cost of private transportation in America by what’s purchased at the gas pump without mentioning automobiles, roads, and bridges.

Indeed, a full accounting of the cost of the flow of money into our political system would also include the carnage and roadkill in its path — the public’s increasing cynicism about democracy, and America’s decreasing capacity to do what most of its citizens desperately need.

Cross-posted from Robert Reich’s blog.

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Comments to "Only $4.2 billion to buy this election?":
    • James R

      Political spending has an analogy in solid state physics — it’s like the tiny gate current on the transistor, which modulates the flow of large currents (wealth) between the emitter (taxpayer) and the collector (special interests, government employees, and other beneficiaries).

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    • Carl Williams

      Vince:
      Great departure from your untenable position.How would you end the game? Put caps on campaign contributions?, Or depart from the two party system.The level of entrenchment of special interest is so deep,we have become entrapped by interest that would undermine any attempt to let us find our own center of gravity.

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    • Gary Lehrer '77

      The government is going to spend anywhere from $800 billion to one trillion dollars on the welfare state. These programs are basically a bribe to keep the status quo, to keep welfare statist politicians in power and make sure that the ruling class maintains its’ position. Politicians from both parties are guilty of using state, local and federal money to essentially buy voters. So let’s not quibble about a mere 4.2 billion or so when the real money is the trillion or so hat’s being spent to keep the same people power who are ignoring the real issues that are ruining this county. Again, Prof Reich’s analysis is typical of the way liberals think. I’m grateful that the Chamber of Commerce, Karl Rove, members of the Tea Party were able to raise plenty of money to counteract the propaganda of the mainstream news, academics and the entrenched elite. Believe me it is a drop in the bucket compared to what Obama, Pelosi and Reid have spent in their attempt to entrench the Democrat Party at the expense of the welfare of this nation. What they did not count on was the fact that the economy would tank so bad, the electorate would be so angry with the Congress and the fact that Republican and Tea Party candidates could raise so much money to bring about awareness of the fact that the policies of Obama are going to ruin health care, cripple the economy and do even more to bankrupt this nation. They actually believed their own lies about the effect the stimulus would have. Also, I studied Keynesian economics at Berkeley and we were told that you cannot stimulate the economy when it is already deeply in debt and that it was necessary to balance the budget so that you have to run a deficit it would actually supposedly cause business to increase.

      Why is Professor Reich only concerned about the money that is spent in people exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech and not at all concerned about the money that is being spent to try and bribe us into being people a country of people ruled by and dependent on the welfare state? I really hope that next Tuesday is going to be the start to reversing the trend that is leading us to become exactly like the Socialist states of Europe, even more bankrupt and in worse decline. And, if we had not ourselves solely paid for the defense of the free world, those countries would be in even worse shape today. I’m voting next Tuesday to really do something about the forces that are really trying to steal our elections, take away our economic freedom and tax us to death so we don’t have the resources to challenge the members of the ruling class. Why do you think Bill Gates is for the estate tax? Because he wants to help people? Or is it because he knows that it helps keep Microsoft free from competition? Think about it and vote wisely. Try to think outside the box, try to understand who really wants you to have to freedom and opportunity and like they said in the sixties – question authority.

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    • Gary Lehrer '77

      I’m going to amend this to say I went back and reread the article and it actually makes more more sense in that he is saying George Will is really underestimating the money that pours in and that a lot of it comes from an economic class that benefits so much from being able to influence the government. I distinctly recall that Republicans like Barry Goldwater warned against the collusion of government and big business. However, Democrats, academicians and the mainstream media kept ridiculing Republicans as the party of big business and maintained that the Democrats were the the champions of the average person. I think most would agree that both parties know how to play the game. It’s time now to end the game.

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    • Carl Williams

      Vince:
      Do you think their are more Rich right wingers,than left? worrisome is how you would characterize the electoral process.Why not perverted.Both sides are indistinguishable.Lets get this into perspective,Demo’s Dominate the house,and the Senate, and nothing of any meaningful progress gets done right.Self interest in politics I’m shocked. Worrisome or exaggerated please,you are pushing my foot.

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    • Nicholas Alexander

      Secretary Reich,

      Your points are well-taken.

      Both major parties are more and more beholden to a corporate agenda. The Supreme Court decision earlier this year can’t simply be characterized as a victory for the Republicans, but instead must be seen as an event that increases the influence of monied special interests in American politics, with profound effects on both major parties, which will end up increasingly trumpeting the agendas of the powerful interests over voters.

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    • Elizabeth

      This is truly sad. Imagine how much we could get done in our country if the majority of this money were not used to get people elected but to make new programs and initiatives to help our economy, create jobs, or bolster education.

      This campagin spending is ridiculous and the amount of money required to run a decent campaign these days makes campaign finance reform laws hard to enact or enforce. No one wants to agree to spending limits when they know that when it comes down to it, they will need the extra millions of dollars to win over their opponent.

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    • Vince

      This is much better professor. The hyperbolic politically partisan screeds you posted earlier on this topic are inappropriate given your position and they cause readers not to take you seriously. Frankly, your post on this topic that was a hit piece on the Republican party exclusively is absurd – and is more appropriate for the moveon.org site.

      I agree with you in respect of this post. This money onslaught is a very worrisome state of affairs and we should all be worried about it.

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