Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Defending Potato Chips?

Over at the Monkey Cage, Joshua Tucker gets really bent out of shape over comparisons between campaign spending and spending on consumer items -- in the case he cites, potato chips.

I disagree!

The problem here is one about big numbers. Big numbers used to scare people. So the total spending on a campaign, or in this case on all the campaigns in one cycle put together, adds up to some big number and we are to believe that the system is wrong simply based on that big, scary, number. The virtue of the comparison is that it puts the big, scary, number in context. That's all. It doesn't say whether campaign spending is good, or bad, or anything else; it just helps us understand the size of the number.

We need more of this, not less, in my view. Candidates raised and spent $6B in 2012? Is that a lot, or not? I don't think most of us have any idea. I don't think most of us have any intuitive idea of what many of the numbers mean in budget debates, in tax debates, in health care debates, or the rest of it. Anything we can do to provide some sort of meaningful way to talk about millions, billions, and trillions of dollars is, in my view, helpful.

Of course that doesn't mean that campaign spending is similar to advertising on other products. It's just about the size of it. That's all, but it's something.


  1. Anything we can do to provide some sort of meaningful way to talk about millions, billions, and trillions of dollars is, in my view, helpful.

    Right, but Tucker's point is that comparing campaign and potato chips spending isn't meaningful or helpful, because it is misleading. It suggests that all $6-billion-size industries are the same, in terms of importance.

    Because the campaign industry is the same size as the potato chip industry, the two must be equally benign; that is the impression this comparison is designed to leave. But that's just not true.

    It's like saying the $30B market for cocaine isn't really significant because Americans spend the same amount of money on soda.

    In the end, the comparison generates more confusion than clarity.

    1. Does everybody who drinks soda also use cocaine? I wouldn't know; I stick strictly to coffee and whiskey myself!

  2. But I know (or at least believe) that the cocaine market is a Bad Thing; what I don't know is how big a bad thing it is. And if you throw a $30B number at me without adding the soda thing (don't know if those are real or you're just throwing it out there), I don't really have any sense on whether that's a lot or not.

    I don't know...I don't think that comparing it to something benign implies that it's benign (and, you know, there are problems with potato chips, too!). It just helps us get the scale right.

  3. Perhaps a bit tangential, but another frustrating aspect of budget numbers (et al.) is that they are often over some period of years - which may be buried in the text, or not specified at all.

    Is a $700 billion increase / reduction in the deficit a lot? Over one year, yes; over 10 years, not so much. These things just make Big Numbers even more bewildering.

  4. Here's the comparison I use. Obama and Romney each spent approximately the same amount to become Leader of the Free World as it would take to buy a world-class prestigious sports franchise -- the Cowboys, Yankees, Manchester United, etc. The U.S. government goes for $6 billion and the market cap of the NFL is like $35 billion.

    1. The presidency != the U.S. government

  5. I like dollars per capita per year. So if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost 1.4T since 2001, and there are 311M people in the US, then that's $424 per person per year. (Is that right?!)

    Or you could say that there are only 140M taxpayers, so that's $909 per taxpayer per year.

  6. The reason I don't like the "potato chip" argument (or the gum of chocolate arguments) is that is just a straw man to try and dismiss legitimate concerns about the role of money and special interests in our politics. You can make this same type of straw man argument, that is just take something bad and find a number that's bigger than it that most people don't worry about, and use it to make all sorts of terrible arguments. For example, you could have claimed in 2005 that far more American's were killed that year by the flu than died in Iraq (and this is true) but that doesn't make the war in Iraq irrelevant. Likewise if the pentagon stacked five billion dollars in a pile and lit the pile of money on fire and said "who cares, Americans spend more money on potato chips than our money fire" we would reject that argument as absurd. If the Economist thinks that it's good or irrelevant that corporations or billionaires can secretly spend hundreds of millions of dollars to elect policy makers, and do things like pass laws that make it harder to vote or harder to prosecute drug dealers who shoot people, they should make that argument, not dismiss critics of this reality by whining about potato chips.

    That said I'd agree it's important to put numbers in perspective.

  7. Longwalk has some good thoughts.

    But nobody has mentioned the right way to put the numbers in perspective - any it's not by comparison to any consumption good or advertising budget.

    It's by looking at time series data: How much spent compared to prior years. For context, scale to something that grows naturally over time, like population or GDP, and adjust for inflation.

    Campaign spending/cap in constant $$$ or as a % of GDP. Just keep the election cycle comparisons constant also - not presidential years to mid-terms.

    It's not that hard - if the data is available. Tell me where to find it, and I'll be happy to make the graphs.

    My guess is that they will be terrifying.


    1. Well, only if you think it should be less than it is.

      Anyway: Seth Masket had a graph of it a while back; 1896 is still the big leader, although I am somewhat skeptical of all the pre-1976 data.

  8. "Of course that doesn't mean that campaign spending is similar to advertising on other products."

    Well, even that would represent a huge improvement over comparing campaign spending to total spending on a type of consumer good. Campaign spending was about $6 billion. The total spent advertising everything, including potato chips, all media in 2011 was about $33 billion.

    And keep in mind that the sentence before that potato chip comparison in The Economist was

    "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."

    In that context, I don't see how the potato chip comparison could be anything but an attempt to downplay the potential harm of such spending.

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