Gambling, Grizzlys and Games: the cost of the US election

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Georgi Kantchev's picture

It's quite a challenge to find similarities between the economies of Niger and Monaco. While the West African country consistently ranks as one of the poorest countries in the world, the gambling paradise on the Mediterranean is one of the wealthiest places on Earth. As it happens, however, both countries produce roughly the same GDP volume per year – about 6 billion US dollars (the difference in wealth, of course, comes from the fact that there are about 30 thousand people living in the tiny European monarchy vs. more than 16 million in Niger). As it also happens, 6 billion US dollars is the estimated price tag for this year's US elections1. Basically, what 16 million people in Niger produce for one whole year and what 4 million tourists gamble away in 12 months costs the same as one election campaign in the US. How is that even possible?

The reason is simple - big country means big money. And America is big. As a candidate for president of the largest democracy in the world, you have to reach more than 200 million eligible voters in 50 states. In order to do that, you have to have people on the ground, on the phones and on the Facebook walls. And then there are the ads. Negative, heroic or plainly misleading, advertisements are a powerful tool to convey a message. The total advertising spending is expected to swell to $1.1 billion this year and that's for the presidential elections only2. Moreover, all those expenditures are spread over a long period of time with campaign efforts starting as early as an year and a half before the actual voting day.

Still, even if accountable, is such spending justified? Does it seem fair to throw what 16 million Nigeriens work to produce in a year into ads called “Mama Grizzlies” (copyright Sarah Palin '08) or "Taliban Dan" (proudly sponsored by Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson)?

Yes, it is. There is no free lunch and democracy is at least a five-course meal. Elections are a vital part of the whole process – the purest of expressions of democracy on an individual level. Elections are also about much more than just policies - people are not merely electing a candidate, people are voting for hope. And you can't put a price on hope.

OK, you can and you should. But there is a lot at stake in the American elections that goes far beyond Texas in the South or California in the West. The US president has a great deal of influence on the world stage, from the global economy to the global warming. And, keeping in mind that the wars in Afganistan and Iraq cost about 4 trillion US dollars so far3, maybe 6 billion (coincidence or not, that's 666 times less) is a reasonable price for voters to give their say about the defense (or, rather, attack) policy of their own country.

Yes, US election costs are probably overblown, especially compared to other countries (an election in the UK comes at about 80 cents per person whereas the average American “pays” 18 dollars for his vote). And yes, the US elections are often more a show and a spectacle rather than a serious deliberation about the future of the country. But with another show, the greatest on Earth4 in fact - the Olympic Games, costing two to three times more than the American election (the budget of the London Games was about $15 billion), the question of justice could be seen in another light. Compared to one year of gambling in Monaco and two weeks of sweating in London, the cost of the US vote may well be a very good deal.

 

1 http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2012/08/2012-election-will-be-costliest-yet.html

2 http://boston.cbslocal.com/2012/09/08/political-ad-spending-expected-to-top-1-billion-for-presidential-election/

3 http://costsofwar.org/

4 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/news/9431579/Olympics-David-Cameron-welcomes-the-world-to-the-greatest-show-on-earth.html