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Put numbers into perspective

December 2, 2012
The Herald-Star

To the editor:

The Nov. 14 edition reprinted an editorial from the Madison, Wis., State Journal that fretted over how much political campaigns and their supporters spent on the 2012 elections - $6 billion, the sentence fragment with which the editorial starkly began ("It's time for campaign finance reform.") Specifically, the campaigns spent $2.6 billion on the presidential race and $3.4 billion on the other federal races. The Journal then urged that federal and state laws will be enacted to require more transparency about donors and accountability for deceptive advertising.

Should the Journal be so exercised about this $6 billion? Uh, no. Consider: it was about half a century ago that Sen. Everett Dirksen (may have) said, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money." Taking inflation into account, it's now "Seven billion here, seven billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."

But political campaigns spend nowhere near real money. For starters, they do not spend $6 billion every year. Using 2012 figures, in a four-year cycle, they would spend $2.6 billion in one presidential race and $3.4 billion in each of two off-year elections, a total of $9.4 billion, or $2.35 billion a year. Time for some perspective: that works out to about two cents per American per day. Two cents, I repeat starkly. We spend more on Halloween costumes ($2.5 billion) than on these political campaigns and 47 times as much on fast food ($110 billion).

Each of us decides how much, if any, of his own money to spend on, say, Halloween costumes, fast food, and politics.

There are those who object: some Christian groups to Halloween, health Nazis to fast food, and would-be reformers like the Journal to private money spent on political campaigns. About the last, why is any amount of spending cause for concern? The Journal does not claim that the money is used to bribe voters, which is illegal; instead, it wants to clamp controls on things that are now legal - private people privately spending private money and about the advertising the money is used for.

Our public discourse already suffers from too much transparency, not too little: we rely far too much on party affiliation, celebrity, and other forms of brand-recognition to evaluate what we see and hear. Without such wobbly crutches, we might, just might, dial back the knee-jerk reactions and start analyzing content. (And the smart money may even decide not to waste itself on mere brand recognition to persuade us.)

As for the accountability for deception, the Journal wants: money is hardly the only thing to follow. Ideology and association are among many others. In any case, none of these are guarantees of sincerity, let alone accuracy. Who is to judge accuracy? How are deceivers to be punished? For example, should we punish the Journal for the meaningless string of alphanumerics that was its editorial?

I say, with no more than a snarky letter.

Terry Graves


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