Time to Stop A Spuddering Analogy: The Difference Between Campaign Finance and Potato Chips

by Joshua Tucker on November 28, 2012 · 11 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Frivolity,Political Economy

If you open this week’s Economist, you will find what is becoming a familiar line about spending on US elections:

The election cycle that has just limped to its exhausted conclusion cost around $6 billion—a new record, as in every new presidential cycle. But when you consider that Americans were electing on November 6th not just the president but 435 congressmen and 33 senators in a vast country of 330m people, where electioneering is primarily conducted by paid television advertisements, the figure may not seem quite so high. Americans spend more than that every year on potato crisps.(emphasis added)

This is not the first time I’ve encountered this type of argument (see the chewing gum version here), and indeed I heard variants on it a number of times at a conference I just participated in on assessing the results of the US presidential election. I’ve even used versions of this line myself with my students.

That being said, I think it is time to stop saying it. While it may be true that Americans spend more on potato chips than political campaigns, there are of course several important differences worth considering here:

  • Potatoes do not have to spend time or effort soliciting donations so they can be converted to potato chips.

  • Once purchased, people rarely lobby potato chips for favors in enacting preferential legislation.

  • Potato chips rarely, if ever, face trade-offs between trying to please the individual who bought them, their constituents, and the country at large. They can just simply be oh-so-tasty.

  • Anyone in the United States is allowed to buy potato chips, not just citizens.  Indeed, even children and foreigners can purchase potato chips.

  • Potato chips are accessible to all citizens, rich and poor alike (with the possible exception of people dealing with cholesterol issues).

  • Sheldon Adelson doesn’t purchase $15 million worth of potato chips for his own personal use (at least I hope not).

I make these points a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the issue is a real one.  I think we are at a point where this technique of comparing campaign funding to some simple consumer good is developing as a short-hand for dismissing concerns with the current system of campaign finance in the United States.  Regardless of what one thinks is the ideal system of campaign funding, suggesting that donating money to a politician is the same thing as buying a bag of chips is not the best way to go about addressing the issue.

Thus it would be Wise to start to Chip away at an over-Baked analogy that should be covered with a Cape (Cod), stuffed in a Kettle, and Lay(d) to rest before the discussion turns Salty and feathers get Ruffle(d) in what ought to be a serious discussion.

{ 11 comments }

jfxgillis November 28, 2012 at 8:26 am

Joshua:

Hear hear.

The “Economist” didn’t even phrase it properly. The analogy is properly ADVERTISING for random consumer product (usually chips) to ADVERTISING for random Presidential election.

I’m proud to say my Freshman Comp students demolished George Will once for that very analogy back in the 1990s.

Sam Greene November 28, 2012 at 8:28 am

Perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be the following. By law, the total amount spent campaigning for and against the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence — including by the pro and contra campaigns, and all political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament — cannot exceed £2.75 million (approximately $4.4 million). That’s £750,000 for the ‘yes’ campaign, the same amount for the ‘no’ campaign, and £250,000 for each of the parties. Whether or not that figure exceeds the amount that Scots spend annually on haggis, single malt whiskey, scotch eggs or anything else is entirely irrelevant.

Ted Brader November 28, 2012 at 9:20 am

Josh,

I don’t mean to chip away at your argument, but the more proper analogies dating back many years (and raised to provoke debate in my classes) were to the amount of commercial advertising budgets. The point simply being it’s not an outrageous amount of money to spend on information and persuasion campaigns given the number and importance of the “products.” I think that’s fair as far as spending goes. Where your critique has bite is that, in order to spend, money to do so must be raised. And there is ample room to lament the current system for fundraising.

Andrew Gelman November 28, 2012 at 11:36 am

+1

JC November 28, 2012 at 1:34 pm

I think Ted’s point is the important one. Josh is right that comparing political spending to spending on consumer products is silly, but comparing it to other advertising/persuasion is instructive. We should stop talking about and being concerned about the *amount* of money spent on politics. Its really not that much, all things considered. The important things are the laws, rules, means, and methods by which money is raised and spent.

The faster we can stop talking in terms of amounts and start talking in terms of process, the better.

Seth November 28, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Good points above, Ted. To be sure, comparing spending on campaigns to spending on potato chips is hardly apt, but it is critics of campaign spending who invite such comparisons when they describe overall levels of spending as “obscene.” (See <a href="https://www.google.com/webhp?hl=en&tab=ww#hl=en&tbo=d&output=search&sclient=psy-ab&q=campaign+spending+obscene&oq=campaig&gs_l=hp.3.0.35i39j0i20j0l2.953.2149.0.3122.7.7.0.0.0.0.144.722.4j3.7.0.les%3Bepmergendc..0.0…1.1.Ns8QdfOgHBw&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.r_qf.&fp=1ac872f3c6faf7fe&bpcl=38897761&biw=1174&bih=927"this Google search for literally millions of examples.) It is not clear to me why billions spent on running ads that inform people about candidates for public office is obscene but the same amount spent on a food product that will slowly kill you is just commerce.

Pat November 28, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Potato chips also do not get favorable ad rates, like political candidates. It is disturbing to blithely compare advertising for an unnecessary commercial product that contributes heavily to bad health to advertising for the people who write the laws of the nation.

Oh, wait…….

sparejayden November 28, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Maybe the potato chip comparison isn’t that far off. We see the ads, buy a bag of chips, eat them, digest them, and then visit the bathroom, and the cycle is complete. So it is with the Presidential election, we see the ads, make our choice, vote, and then forget about it shortly after. Yep, I just compared voting to a number 2.
With fritos, customers pay for the chips and the ads, and the chip producers remain responsive to customers. Some campaign customers, however, consume millions of times more than the average, and the worry is, how responsive do campaign producers remain to those customers. So I am echoing JC’s comment above that the focus should be on process, and focus more on to what extent campaign financiers get special discounts for buying in bulk.

priscianusjr November 28, 2012 at 4:10 pm

The analogy works only if you accept the premise that our elected officials are a form of consumer goods.

M. Peterson November 29, 2012 at 2:48 pm

$6 billion in campaign spending and 127 million voters works out to something less that $50 per vote cast. When I was last in the grocery store they were running a BOGO promotion for Lay’s potato chips which equated to roughly $2.50 per family size bag. Questions: Would a partisan promise of 19 family size bags of potato chips in exchange for a commitment to vote a straight party line ballot eliminate the problem of the undecided voter in close races? And, could donors and parties reduce their overall cash outlays by buying in bulk from chip producers and offering early voters bonus bags?

del2124 November 30, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Potato chips also have pretty limited nutritional value. I agree as a comparison point it’s a little useless (if $6 billion is appropriate because it’s less than Americans spend annually on potato chips well then, at what point should we get worried? When it becomes equivalent to the gross domestic product of Honduras? Annual spending on heating oil? ) but I keep thinking that surely we could be spending our money a little more constructively.

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