Why Do We Spend So Little on Politics?

Citizens for Responsible Politics are wringing their hands over the fact that Americans may spend $5.3 billion on political campaigns this year. (And it’s not all the Obama campaign!) $5.3 billion.

So let’s see … the federal government just spent $700 billion on a bailout of Wall Street. Or maybe it’s $2.25 trillion, or $3 trillion, in the eventual total cost of the financial bailouts. And we’ve spent $600 billion–or maybe a trillion, or maybe $4 trillion–on the Iraq war. And so little things like a $25 billion bailout for the automobile industry become accounting errors. Meanwhile, under President Bush annual federal spending has soared past $2 trillion and past $3 trillion.

And with all this money available in Washington, people have only spent $5.3 billion this year to get a piece of it? What’s wrong with them? Political scientists from Gordon Tullock to Stephen Ansolabehere have pondered this question. Tim Harford says it’s not easy to get politicians to do what you want even when you spend money on them, and that’s why people spend so little.

But $5.3 billion to elect a president and 468 members of Congress? That’s less than we’ll spend on potato chips this year.