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Why Is There So Little Money in Politics? Also: Why So Much?

Academics are trying to sort out whether corporate political donations make economic sense, and it turns out to be more complicated than you think.

A New York Times column from Eduardo Porter considers money in American politics at a historically interesting time—some academics have long argued that there isn't enough money in our political process, considering what that money could potentially buy:

“The discrepancy between the value of policy and the amounts contributed strains basic economic intuitions,” Mr. Ansolabehere and his colleagues wrote. “Given the value of policy at stake, firms and other interest groups should give more.”


But, the column says, it's not clear how effective campaign contributions or lobbying actually is over time, when you look at corporate profits.

The limited impact of money on election outcomes or legislation raises two questions, of course: why do politicians spend such time and effort raising money? And why do companies make donations at all? Maybe politicians fear facing a lopsided race if they disarm unilaterally. Legislators may be able to rustle up corporate contributions without changing legislation simply by hinting at irksome new laws or regulations if the money is not forthcoming.


The upshot? Apparently it's been a heck of a lot easier for corporations to sway the voting public on things voters know less about, like propositions and ballot issues, than on candidates. But that new resources "could transform elections into something akin to ballot initiatives, where money has a proven track record in molding the outcome."

Ten-dollar bill photo by Flickr (cc) user Gamma Man

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