What about a tax on political contributions?

Jan 7, JDN 2458126

In my previous post, I argued that an advertising tax could reduce advertising, raise revenue, and produce almost no real economic distortion. Now I’m going to generalize this idea to an even bolder proposal: What if we tax political contributions?

Donations to political campaigns are very similar to advertising. A contest function framework also makes a lot of sense: Increased spending improves your odds of winning, but it doesn’t actually produce any real goods.

Suppose there’s some benefit B that I get if a given politician wins an election. That benefit could include direct benefits to me, as well as altruistic benefits to other citizens I care about, or even my concern for the world as a whole. But presumably, I do benefit in some fashion from my favored politician winning—otherwise, why are they my favored politician?

In this very simple model, let’s assume that there are only two parties and two donors (obviously in the real world there are more parties and vastly more donors; but it doesn’t fundamentally change the argument). Say I will donate x and the other side will donate y.

Assuming that donations are all that matter, the probability my party will win the election is x/(x+y).

Fortunately that isn’t the case. A lot of things matter, some that should (policy platforms, experience, qualifications, character) and some that shouldn’t (race, gender, age, heightpart of why Trump won may in fact be that he is tall; he’s about 6’1”.). So let’s put all the other factors that affect elections into a package and call that F.

The probability that my candidate wins is then x/(x+y) + F, where F can be positive or negative. If F is positive, it means that my candidate is more likely to win, while if it’s negative, it means my candidate is less likely to win. (If you want to be pedantic, the probability of winning has to be capped at 0 and 1, but this doesn’t fundamentally change the argument, and only matters for candidates that are obvious winners or obvious losers regardless of how much anyone donates.)

The donation costs me money, x. The cost in utility of that money depends on my utility function, so for now I’ll just call it a cost function C(x).
Then my net benefit is:
B*[x/(x+y)+F] – C(x)

I can maximize this by a first-order condition. Notice how the F just drops out. I like F to be large, but it doesn’t affect my choice of x.

B*y/(x+y)^2 = C'(x)

Turning that into an exact value requires knowing my cost function and my opponent’s cost function (which need not be the same, in general; unlike the advertising case, it’s not a matter of splitting fungible profits between us), but it’s actually possible to stop here. We can already tell that there is a well-defined solution: There’s a certain amount of donation x that maximizes my expected utility, given the amount y that the other side has donated. Moreover, with a little bit of calculus you can show that the optimal amount of x is strictly increasing in y, which makes intuitive sense: The more they give, the more you need to give in order to keep up. Since x is increasing in y and y is increasing in x, there is a Nash equilibrium: At some amount x and y we each are giving the optimal amount from our perspective.

We can get a precise answer if we assume that the amount of the donations is small compared to my overall wealth, so I will be approximately risk-neutral; then we can just say C(x) = x, and C'(x) = 1:

B*y/(x+y)^2 = 1
Then we get essentially the same result we did for the advertising:

x = y = B/4

According to this, I should be willing to donate up to one-fourth the benefit I’d get from my candidate winning in donations. This actually sounds quite high; I think once you take into account the fact that lots of other people are donating and political contributions aren’t that effective at winning elections, the optimal donation is actually quite a bit smaller—though perhaps still larger than most people give.

If we impose a tax rate r on political contributions, nothing changes. The cost to me of donating is still the same, and as long as the tax is proportional, the ratio x/(x+y) and the probability x/(x+y) + F will remain exactly the same as before. Therefore, I will continue to donate the same amount, as will my opponent, and each candidate will have the same probability of winning as before. The only difference is that some of the money (r of the money, to be precise) will go to the government instead of the politicians.

The total amount of donations will not change. The probability of each candidate winning will not change. All that will happen is money will be transferred from politicians to the government. If this tax revenue is earmarked for some socially beneficial function, this will obviously be an improvement in welfare.

The revenue gained is not nearly as large an amount of money as is spent on advertising (which tells you something about American society), but it’s still quite a bit: Since we currently spend about $5 billion per year on federal elections, a tax rate of 50% could raise about $2.5 billion.

But in fact this seriously under-estimates the benefits of such a tax. This simple model assumes that political contributions only change which candidate wins; but that’s actually not the main concern. (If F is large enough, it can offset any possible donations.)
The real concern is how political contributions affect the choices politicians make once they get into office. While outright quid-pro-quo bribery is illegal, it’s well-known that many corporations and wealthy individuals will give campaign donations with the reasonable expectation of influencing what sort of policies will be made.

You don’t think Goldman Sachs gives millions of dollars each election out of the goodness of their hearts, do you? And they give to both major parties, which really only makes sense if their goal is not to make a particular candidate win, but to make sure that whoever wins feels indebted to Goldman Sachs. (I guess it could also be to prevent third parties from winning—but they hardly ever win anyway, so that wouldn’t be a smart investment from the bank’s perspective.)

Lynda Powell at the University of Rochester has documented the many subtle but significant ways that these donations have influenced policy. Campaign donations aren’t as important as party platforms, but a lot of subtle changes across a wide variety of policies add up to large differences in outcomes.

A political contribution tax would reduce these influences. If politicians’ sole goal were to win, the tax would have no effect. But it seems quite likely that politicians enjoy various personal benefits from lobbying and campaign contributions: Fine dinners, luxurious vacations, and so on. And insofar as that is influencing politicians’ behavior, it is both obviously corrupt and clearly reduced by a political contribution tax. How large an effect this would be is difficult to say; but the direction of the effect is clearly the one we want.

Taxing donations would also allow us to protect the right to give to campaigns (which does seem to be a limited kind of civil liberty, even though the precise interpretation “money is speech” is Orwellian), while reducing corruption and allowing us to keep close track on donations that are made. Taxing a money stream, even a small amount, is often one of the best ways to incentivize close monitoring of that money stream.

With a subtle change, the tax could even be made to bias in favor of populism: All you need to do is exempt small donations from the tax. If say the first $1000 per person per year is exempt from taxation, then the imposition of the tax will reduce the effectiveness of million-dollar contributions from Goldman Sachs and the Koch brothers without having any effect on $50 donations from people like you and me. That would technically be “distorting” elections—but it seems like it might be a distortion worth making.

Of course, this is probably even less likely to happen than the advertising tax.

The potential of an advertising tax

Jan 7, JDN 2458126

Advertising is everywhere in our society. You may see some on this very page (though if I hit my next Patreon target I’m going to pay to get rid of those). Ad-blockers can help when you’re on the Web, and premium channels like HBO will save you from ads when watching TV, but what are you supposed to do about ads on billboards as you drive down the highway, ads on buses as you walk down the street, ads on the walls of the subway train?

And Banksy isn’t entirely wrong; this stuff can be quite damaging. Based on decades of research, the American Psychological Association has issued official statements condemning the use of advertising to children for its harmful psychological effects. Medical research has shown that advertisements for food can cause overeating—and thus, the correlated rise of advertising and obesity may be no coincidence.

Worst of all, political advertising distorts our view of the world. Though we may not be able to blame advertising per se for Trump; most of his publicity was gained for free by irresponsible media coverage.

And yet, advertising is almost pure rent-seeking. It costs resources, but it doesn’t produce anything. In most cases it doesn’t even raise awareness about something or find new customers. The primary goal of most advertising is to get you to choose that brand instead of a different brand. A secondary goal (especially for food ads) is to increase your overall consumption of that good, but since the means employed typically involve psychological manipulation, this increase in consumption is probably harmful to social welfare.

A general principle of economics that has almost universal consensus is the Pigou Principle: If you want less of something, you should put a tax on it. So, what would happen if we put a tax on advertising?

The amazing thing is that in this case, we would probably not actually reduce advertising spending, but we would reduce advertising, which is what we actually care about. Moreover, we would be able to raise an enormous amount of revenue with zero social cost. Like the other big Pigovian tax (the carbon tax), this a rare example of a tax that will give you a huge amount of revenue while actually yielding a benefit to society.

This is far from obvious, so I think it is worth explaining where it comes from.

The key point is that advertising doesn’t typically increase the overall size of the market (though in some cases it does; I’ll get back to that in a moment). Rather that a conventional production function like we would have for most types of expenditure, advertising is better modeled by what is called a contest function (something that our own Stergios Skaperdas at UCI is actually a world-class expert in). In a production function, inputs increase the total amount of output. But in a contest function, inputs only redistribute output from one place to another. Contest functions thus provide a good model of rent-seeking, which is what most advertising is.

Suppose there’s a total market M for some good, where M is the total profits that can be gained from capturing that entire market.
Then, to keep it simple, let’s suppose there are only two major firms in the market, a duopoly like Coke and Pepsi or Boeing and Airbus.

Let’s say Coke decides to spend an amount x on advertising, and Pepsi decides to spend an amount y.

For now, let’s assume that total beverage consumption won’t change; so the total profits to be had from the market are always M.

What advertising does is it changes the share of that market which each firm will get. Specifically, let’s use the simplest model, where the share of the market is equal to the share of advertising spending.

Then the net profit for Coke is the following:

The share they get, x/(x+y), times the size of the whole market, M, minus the advertising spending x.

max M*x/(x+y) – x

We can maximize this with the usual first-order condition:

y/(x+y)^2 M – 1 = 0

(x+y)^2 = My

Since the game is symmetric, in a Nash equilibrium, Pepsi will use the same reasoning:

(x+y)^2 = Mx

Thus we have:

x = y

(2x)^2 = Mx

x = M/4

In this very simple model, each firm will spend one-fourth of the market’s value, and the total advertising spending will be equal to half the size of the market. Then, each company’s net income will be equal to its advertising spending. This is a pretty good estimate for Coca-Cola in real life, which spends about $3.3 billion on advertising and receives about $2.8 billion in net income each year.

What would happen if we introduce a tax? Let’s say we introduce a proportional tax r on all advertising spending. That is, for every dollar you spend on advertising, you must pay the government $r in tax. The really remarkable thing is that companies who advertise shouldn’t care what we make the tax; the only ones who will care are the advertising companies themselves.

If Coke pays x, the actual amount of advertising they receive is x – r x = x(1-r).

Likewise, Pepsi’s actual advertising received is y(1-r).

But notice that the share of total advertising spending is completely unchanged!

(x(1-r))/(x(1-r) + y(1-r)) = x/(x+y)

Since the payoff for Coke only depends on how much Coke spends and what market share they get, it is also unchanged. Since the same is true for Pepsi, nothing will change in how the two companies behave. They will spend the same amount on advertising, and they will receive the same amount of net income when all is said and done.

The total quantity of advertising will be reduced, from x+y to (x+y)(1-r). That means fewer billboards, fewer posters in subway stations, fewer TV commercials. That will hurt advertising companies, but benefit everyone else.

How much revenue will we get for the government? r x + r y = r(x+y).

Since the goal is to substantially reduce advertising output, and it won’t distort other industries in any way, we should set this tax quite high. A reasonable value for r would be 50%. We might even want to consider something as high as 90%; but for now let’s look at what 50% would do.

Total advertising spending in the US is over $200 billion per year. Since an advertising tax would not change total advertising spending, we can expect that a tax rate of 50% would simply capture 50% of this spending as revenue, which is to say $100 billion per year. That would be enough to pay for the entire Federal education budget, or the foreign aid and environment budgets combined.
Another great aspect of how an advertising tax is actually better than a carbon tax is that countries will want to compete to have the highest advertising taxes. If say Canada imposes a carbon tax but the US doesn’t, industries will move production to the US where it is cheaper, which hurts Canada. Yet the total amount of pollution will remain about the same, and Canada will be just as affected by climate change as they would have been anyway. So we need to coordinate across countries so that the carbon taxes are all the same (or at least close), to prevent industries from moving around; and each country has an incentive to cheat by imposing a lower carbon tax.

But advertising taxes aren’t like that. If Canada imposes an advertising tax and the US doesn’t, companies won’t shift production to the US; they will shift advertising to the US. And having your country suddenly flooded with advertisements is bad. That provides a strong incentive for you to impose your own equal or even higher advertising tax to stem the tide. And pretty soon, everyone will have imposed an advertising tax at the same rate.

Of course, in all the above I’ve assumed a pure contest function, meaning that advertisements are completely unproductive. What if they are at least a little bit productive? Then we wouldn’t want to set the tax too high, but the basic conclusions would be unchanged.

Suppose, for instance, that the advertising spending adds half its value to the value of the market. This is a pretty high estimate of the benefits of advertising.

Under this assumption, in place of M we have M+(x+y)/2. Everything else is unchanged.

We can maximize as before:

max (M+(x+y)/2)*x/(x+y) – x

The math is a bit trickier, but we can still solve by a first-order condition, which simplifies to:

(x+y)^2 = 2My

By the same symmetry reasoning as before:

(2x)^2 = 2Mx

x = M/2

Now, total advertising spending would equal the size of the market without advertising, and net income for each firm after advertising would be:

2M(1/2) – M/2 = M/2

That is, advertising spending would equal net income, as before. (A surprisingly robust result!)

What if we imposed a tax? Now the algebra gets even nastier:

max (M+(x+y)(1-r)/2)*x/(x+y) – x

But the ultimate outcome is still quite similar:

(1+r)(x+y)^2 = 2My

(1+r)(2x)^2 = 2Mx

x = M/2*1/(1+r)

Advertising spending will be reduced by a factor of 1/(1+r). Even if r is 50%, that still means we’ll have 2/3 of the advertising spending we had before.

Total tax revenue will then be M*r/(1+r), which for r of 50% would be M/3.

Total advertising will be M(1-r)/(1+r), which would be M/3. So we managed to reduce advertising by 2/3, while reducing advertising spending by only 1/3. Then we would receive half of that spending as revenue. Thus, instead of getting $100 billion per year, we would get $67 billion, which is still just about enough to pay for food stamps.

What’s the downside of this tax? Unlike most taxes, there really isn’t one. Yes, it would hurt advertising companies, which I suppose counts as a downside. But that was mostly waste anyway; anyone employed in advertising would be better employed almost anywhere else. Millions of minds are being wasted coming up with better ways to sell Viagra instead of better treatments for cancer. Any unemployment introduced by an advertising tax would be temporary and easily rectified by monetary policy, and most of it would hit highly educated white-collar professionals who have high incomes to begin with and can more easily find jobs when displaced.

The real question is why we aren’t doing this already. And that, I suppose, has to come down to politics.

“But wait, there’s more!”: The clever tricks of commercials

JDN 2457565

I’m sure you’ve all seen commercials like this dozens of times:

A person is shown (usually in black-and-white) trying to use an ordinary consumer product, and failing miserably. Often their failure can only be attributed to the most abject incompetence, but the narrator will explain otherwise: “Old product is so hard to use. Who can handle [basic household activity] and [simple instructions]?”

“Struggle no more!” he says (it’s almost always a masculine narrator), and the video turns to full color as the same person is shown using the new consumer product effortlessly. “With innovative high-tech new product, you can do [basic household activity] with ease in no time!”

“Best of all, new product, a $400 value, can be yours for just five easy payments of $19.95. That’s five easy payments of $19.95!”

And then, here it comes: “But wait. There’s more! Order within the next 15 minutes and you will get two new products, for the same low price. That’s $800 in value for just five easy payments of $19.95! And best of all, your satisfaction is guaranteed! If you don’t like new product, return it within 30 days for your money back!” (A much quieter, faster voice says: “Just pay shipping and handling.”)

Call 555-1234. That’s 555-1234.


Did you ever stop and think about why so many commercials follow this same precise format?

In short, because it works. Indeed, it works a good deal better than simply presenting the product’s actual upsides and downsides and reporting a sensible market price—even if that sensible market price is lower than the “five easy payments of $19.95”.

We owe this style of marketing to one Ron Popeil; Ron Popeil was a prolific inventor, but none of his inventions have had so much impact as the market methods he used to sell them.

Let’s go through step by step. Why is the person using the old product so incompetent? Surely they could sell their product without implying that we don’t know how to do basic household activities like boiling pasta and cutting vegetables?

Well, first of all, many of these products do nothing but automate such simple household activities (like the famous Veg-O-Matic which cuts vegetables and “It slices! It dices!”), so if they couldn’t at least suggest that this is a lot of work they’re saving us, we’d have no reason to want their product.

But there’s another reason as well: Watching someone else fumble with basic household appliances is funny, as any fan of the 1950s classic I Love Lucy would attest (in fact, it may not be a coincidence that the one fumbling with the vegetables is often a woman who looks a lot like Lucy), and meta-analysis of humor in advertising has shown that it draws attention and triggers positive feelings.

Why use black-and-white for the first part? The switch to color enhances the feeling of contrast, and the color video is more appealing. You wouldn’t consciously say “Wow, that slicer changed the tomatoes from an ugly grey to a vibrant red!” but your subconscious mind is still registering that association.

Then they will hit you with appealing but meaningless buzzwords. For technology it will be things like “innovative”, “ground-breaking”, “high-tech” and “state-of-the-art”, while for foods and nutritional supplements it will be things like “all-natural”, “organic”, “no chemicals”, and “just like homemade”. It will generally be either so vague as to be unverifiable (what constitutes “innovative”?), utterly tautological (all carbon-based substances are “organic” and this term is not regulated), or transparently false but nonetheless not specific enough to get them in trouble (“just like homemade” literally can’t be true if you’re buying it from a TV ad). These give you positive associations without forcing the company to commit to making a claim they could actually be sued for breaking. It’s the same principle as the Applause Lights that politicians bring to every speech: “Three cheers for moms!” “A delicious slice of homemade apple pie!” “God Bless America!”

Occasionally you’ll also hear buzzwords that do have some meaning, but often not nearly as strong as people imagine: “Patent pending” means that they applied for the patent and it wasn’t summarily rejected—but not that they’ll end up getting it approved. “Certified organic” means that the USDA signed off on the farming standards, which is better than nothing but leaves a lot of wiggle room for animal abuse and irresponsible environmental practices.

And then we get to the price. They’ll quote some ludicrous figure for its “value”, which may be a price that no one has ever actually paid for a product of this kind, then draw a line through it and replace it with the actual price, which will be far lower.

Indeed, not just lower: The actual price is almost always $19.99 or $19.95. If the product is too expensive to make for them to sell it at $19.95, they will sell it at several payments of $19.95, and emphasize that these are “easy” payments, as though the difficulty of writing the check were a major factor in people’s purchasing decisions. (That actually is a legitimate concern for micropayments, but not for buying kitchen appliances!) They’ll repeat the price because repetition improves memory and also makes statements more persuasive.

This is what we call psychological pricing, and it’s one of those enormous market distortions that once you realize it’s there, you see it everywhere and start to wonder how our whole market system hasn’t collapsed on itself from the sheer weight of our overwhelming irrationality. The price of a product sold on TV will almost always be just slightly less than $20.

In general, most prices will take the form of $X.95 or $X.99; Costco even has a code system they use in the least significant digit. Continuous substances like gasoline can even be sold at fractional pennies, and so they’ll usually be at $X.X99, being not even one penny less. It really does seem to work; despite being an eminently trivial difference from the round number, and typically rounded up from what it actually should have been, it just feels like less to see $19.95 rather than $20.00.

Moreover, I have less data to support this particular hypothesis, but I think that $20 in particular is a very specific number, because $19.95 pops up so very, very often. I think most Americans have what we might call a “Jackson heuristic”, which is as follows: If something costs less than a Jackson (a $20 bill, though hopefully they’ll put Harriet Tubman on soon, so “Tubman heuristic”), you’re allowed to buy it on impulse without thinking too hard about whether it’s worth it. But if it costs more than a Jackson, you need to stop and think about it, weigh the alternatives before you come to a decision. Since these TV ads are almost always aiming for the thoughtless impulse buy, they try to scrape in just under the Jackson heuristic.

Of course, inflation will change the precise figure over time; in the 1980s it was probably a Hamilton heuristic, in the 1970s a Lincoln heuristic, in the 1940s a Washington heuristic. Soon enough it will be a Grant heuristic and then a Benjamin heuristic. In fact it’s probably something like “The closest commonly-used cash denomination to half a milliQALY”, but nobody does that calculation consciously; the estimate is made automatically without thinking. This in turn is probably figured because you could literally do that once a day every single day for only about 20% of your total income, and if you hold it to once a week you’re under 3% of your income. So if you follow the Jackson heuristic on impulse buys every week or so, your impulse spending is a “statistically insignificant” proportion of your income. (Why do we use that anyway? And suddenly we realize: The 95% confidence level is itself nothing more than a heuristic.)

Then they take advantage of our difficulty in discounting time rationally, by spreading it into payments; “five easy payments of $19.95” sounds a lot more affordable than “$100”, but they are in fact basically the same. (You save $0.25 by the payment plan, maybe as much as a few dollars if your cashflow is very bad and thus you have a high temporal discount rate.)

And then, finally, “But wait. There’s more!” They offer you another of the exact same product, knowing full well you’ll probably have no use for the second one. They’ll multiply their previous arbitrary “value” by 2 to get an even more ludicrous number. Now it sounds like they’re doing you a favor, so you’ll feel obliged to do one back by buying the product. Gifts often have this effect in experiments: People are significantly more motivated to answer a survey if you give them a small gift beforehand, even if they get to keep it without taking the survey.

They’ll tell you to call in the next 15 minutes so that you feel like part of an exclusive club (when in reality you could probably call at any time and get the same deal). This also ensures that you’re staying in impulse-buy mode, since if you wait longer to think, you’ll miss the window!

They will offer a “money-back guarantee” to give you a sense of trust in the product, and this would be a rational response, except for that little disclaimer: “Just pay shipping and handling.” For many products, especially nutritional supplements (which cost basically nothing to make), the “handling” fee is high enough that they don’t lose much money, if any, even if you immediately send it back for a refund. Besides, they know that hardly anyone actually bothers to return products. Retailers are currently in a panic about “skyrocketing” rates of product returns that are still under 10%.

Then, they’ll repeat their phone number, followed by a remarkably brazen direct command: “Call now!” Personally I tend to bristle at direct commands, even from legitimate authorities; but apparently I’m unusual in that respect, and most people will in fact obey direct commands from random strangers as long as they aren’t too demanding. A famous demonstration of this you could try yourself if you’re feeling like a prankster is to walk into a room, point at someone, and say “You! Stand up!” They probably will. There’s a whole literature in social psychology about what makes people comply with commands of this sort.

And all, to make you buy a useless gadget you’ll try to use once and then leave in a cupboard somewhere. What untold billions of dollars in wealth are wasted this way?

Super PACs are terrible—but ineffective

JDN 2457516

It’s now beginning to look like an ongoing series: “Reasons to be optimistic about our democracy.”

Super PACs, in case you didn’t know, are a bizarre form of legal entity, established after the ludicrous Citizens United ruling (“Corporations are people” and “money is speech” are literally Orwellian), which allows corporations to donate essentially unlimited funds to political campaigns with minimal disclosure and zero accountability. This creates an arms race where even otherwise-honest candidates feel pressured to take more secret money just to keep up.

At the time, a lot of policy wonks said “Don’t worry, they already give tons of money anyway, what’s the big deal?”

Well, those wonks were wrong—it was a big deal. Corporate donations to political campaigns exploded in the era of Super PACs. The Citizens United ruling was made in 2010, and take a look at this graph of total “independent” (i.e., not tied to candidate or party) campaign spending (using data from OpenSecrets):


It’s a small sample size, to be sure, and campaign spending was already rising. But 2010 and 2014 were very high by the usual standards of midterm elections, and 2012 was absolutely unprecedented—over $1 billion spent on campaigns. Moreover, the only reason 2016 looks lower than 2012 is that we’re not done with 2016 yet; I’m sure it will rise a lot higher than it is now, and very likely overtake 2012. (And if it doesn’t it’ll be because Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump made very little use Super-PACs, for quite different reasons.) It was projected to exceed $4 billion, though I doubt it will actually make it quite that high.

Worst of all, this money is all coming from a handful of billionaires. 41% of Super-PAC funds comes from the same 50 households. That’s fifty. Even including everyone living in the household, this group of people could easily fit inside an average lecture hall—and they account for two-fifths of independent campaign spending in the US.

Weirdest of all, there are still people who seem to think that the problem with American democracy is it’s too hard for rich people to give huge amounts of money to political campaigns in secret, and they are trying to weaken our campaign spending regulations even more.

So that’s the bad news—but here’s the good news.

Super-PACs are ludicrously ineffective.

Hillary Clinton is winning, and will probably win the election; and she does have the most Super-PAC money among candidates still in the race (at $76 million, about what the Clintons themselves make in 3 years). Ted Cruz also has $63 million in Super-PAC money. But Bernie Sanders only has $600,000 in Super-PAC money (actually also about 3 times his household income, coincidentally), and Donald Trump only has $2.7 million. Both of these are less than John Kasich’s $13 million in Super-PAC spending, and yet Kasich and Cruz are now dropped out and only Trump remains.

But more importantly, the largest amount of Super-PAC money went to none other than Jeb Bush—a whopping $121 million—and it did basically nothing for him. Marco Rubio had $62 million in Super-PAC money, and he dropped out too. Martin O’Malley had more Super-PAC money than Bernie Sanders, and where is he now? In fact, literally every Republican candidate had more Super-PAC money than Bernie Sanders, and every Republican but Rick Santorum, Jim Gilmore, and George Pataki (you’re probably thinking: “Who?” Exactly.) had more Super-PAC money than Donald Trump.

Indeed, political spending in general is not very effective. Additional spending on political campaigns has minimal effects on election outcomes.

You wouldn’t immediately see that from our current Presidential race; while Rubio raised $117 million and Jeb! raised $155 million and both of them lost, the winners also raised a great deal. Hillary Clinton raised $256 million, Bernie Sanders raised $180 million, Ted Cruz raised $142 million, and Donald Trump raised $48 million. Even that last figure is mainly so low because Donald Trump is a master at getting free publicity; the media effectively gave Trump an astonishing $1.89 billion in free publicity. To be fair, a lot of that was bad publicity—but it still got his name and his ideas out there and didn’t cost him a dime.

So, just from the overall spending figures, it looks like maybe total campaign spending is important, even if Super-PACs in particular are useless.

But empirical research has shown that political spending has minimal effects on actual election outcomes. So ineffective, in fact, that a lot of economists are puzzled that there’s so much spending anyway. Here’s a paper arguing that once you include differences in advertising prices, political spending does matter. Here are two papers proposing different explanations for why incumbent spending appears to be less effective than challenger spending:This one says that it’s a question of accounting for how spending is caused by voter participation (rather than the reverse), while this one argues that the abuse of incumbent privileges like franking gives incumbents more real “spending” power. It’s easy to miss that both of them are trying to explain a basic empirical fact that candidates that spend a lot more still often lose.

Political advertising can be effective at changing minds, but only to a point.

The candidate who spends the most usually does win—but that’s because the candidate who spends the most usually raises the most, and the candidate who raises the most usually has the most support.

The model that makes the most sense to me is that political spending is basically a threshold; you need to spend enough that people know you exist, but beyond that additional spending won’t make much difference. In 1996 that threshold was estimated to be about $400,000 for a House election; that’s still only about $600,000 in today’s money.

Campaign spending is more effective when there are caps on individual contributions; a lot of people find this counter-intuitive, but it makes perfect sense on a threshold model, because spending caps could hold candidates below the threshold. Limits on campaign spending have a large effect on spending, but a small effect on outcomes.

Does this mean we shouldn’t try to limit campaign spending? I don’t think so. It can still be corrupt and undesirable even if isn’t all that effective.

But it is good news: You can’t actually just buy elections—not in America, not yet.

No, advertising is not signaling

JDN 2457373

Awhile ago, I wrote a post arguing that advertising is irrational, that at least with advertising as we know it, no real information is conveyed and thus either consumers are being irrational in their purchasing decisions, or advertisers are irrational for buying ads that don’t work.

One of the standard arguments neoclassical economists make to defend the rationality of advertising is that advertising is signaling—that even though the content of the ads conveys no useful information, the fact that there are ads is a useful signal of the real quality of goods being sold.

The idea is that by spending on advertising, a company shows that they have a lot of money to throw around, and are therefore a stable and solvent company that probably makes good products and is going to stick around for awhile.

Here are a number of different papers all making this same basic argument, often with sophisticated mathematical modeling. This paper takes an even bolder approach, arguing that people benefit from ads and would therefore pay to get them if they had to. Does that sound even remotely plausible to you? It sure doesn’t to me. Some ads are fairly entertaining, but generally if someone is willing to pay money for a piece of content, they charge money for that content.

Could spending on advertising offer a signal of the quality of a product or the company that makes it? Yes. That is something that actually could happen. The reason this argument is ridiculous is not that advertising signaling couldn’t happen—it’s that advertising is clearly nowhere near the best way to do that. The content of ads is clearly nothing remotely like what it would be if advertising were meant to be a costly signal of quality.

Look at this ad for Orangina. Look at it. Look at it.

Now, did that ad tell you anything about Orangina? Anything at all?

As far as I can tell, the thing it actually tells you isn’t even true—it strongly implies that Orangina is a form of aftershave when in fact it is an orange-flavored beverage. It’d be kind of like having an ad for the iPad that involves scantily-clad dog-people riding the iPad like it’s a hoverboard. (Now that I’ve said it, Apple is probably totally working on that ad.)

This isn’t an isolated incident for Orangina, who have a tendency to run bizarre and somewhat suggestive (let’s say PG-13) TV spots involving anthropomorphic animals.

But more than that, it’s endemic to the whole advertising industry.

Look at GEICO, for instance; without them specifically mentioning that this is car insurance, you’d never know what they were selling from all the geckos,

and Neanderthals,

and… golf Krakens?

Progressive does slightly better, talking about some of their actual services while also including an adorably-annoying spokesperson (she’s like Jar Jar, but done better):

State Farm also includes at least a few tidbits about their insurance amidst the teleportation insanity:

But honestly the only car insurance commercials I can think of that are actually about car insurance are Allstate’s, and even then they’re mostly about Dennis Haybert’s superhuman charisma. I would buy bacon cheeseburgers from this man, and I’m vegetarian.

Esurance is also relatively informative (and owned by Allstate, by the way); they talk about their customer service and low prices (in other words, the only things you actually care about with car insurance). But even so, what reason do we have to believe their bald assertions of good customer service? And what’s the deal with the whole money-printing thing?

And of course I could deluge you with examples from other companies, from Coca-Cola’s polar bears and Santa Claus to this commercial, which is literally the most American thing I have ever seen:

If you’re from some other country and are going, “What!?” right now, that’s totally healthy. Honestly I think we would too if constant immersion in this sort of thing hadn’t deadened our souls.

Do these ads signal that their companies have a lot of extra money to burn? Sure. But there are plenty of other ways to do that which would also serve other valuable functions. I honestly can’t imagine any scenario in which the best way to tell me the quality of an auto insurance company is to show me 30-second spots about geckos and Neanderthals.

If a company wants to signal that they have a lot of money, they could simply report their financial statement. That’s even regulated so that we know it has to be accurate (and this is one of the few financial regulations we actually enforce). The amount you spent on an ad is not obvious from the result of the ad, and doesn’t actually prove that you’re solvent, only that you have enough access to credit. (Pets.com famously collapsed the same year they ran a multi-million-dollar Super Bowl ad.)

If a company wants to signal that they make a good product, they could pay independent rating agencies to rate products on their quality (you know, like credit rating agencies and reviewers of movies and video games). Paying an independent agency is far more reliable than the signaling provided by advertising. Consumers could also pay their own agencies, which would be even more reliable; credit rating agencies and movie reviewers do sometimes have a conflict of interest, which could be resolved by making them report to consumers instead of producers.

If a company wants to establish that they are both financially stable and socially responsible, they could make large public donations to important charities. (This is also something that corporations do on occasion, such as Subaru’s recent campaign.) Or they could publicly announce a raise for all their employees. This would not only provide us with the information that they have this much money to spend—it would actually have a direct positive social effect, thus putting their money where there mouth is.

Signaling theory in advertising is based upon the success of signaling theory in evolutionary biology, which is beyond dispute; but evolution is tightly constrained in what it can do, so wasteful costly signals make sense. Human beings are smarter than that; we can find ways to convey information that don’t involve ludicrous amounts of waste.

If we were anywhere near as rational as these neoclassical models assume us to be, we would take the constant bombardment of meaningless ads not as a signal of a company’s quality but as a personal assault—they are needlessly attacking our time and attention when all the genuinely-valuable information they convey could have been conveyed much more easily and reliably. We would not buy more from them; we would refuse to buy from them. And indeed, I’ve learned to do just that; the more a company bombards me with annoying or meaningless advertisements, the more I make a point of not buying their product if I have a viable substitute. (For similar reasons, I make a point of never donating to any charity that uses hard-sell tactics to solicit donations.)

But of course the human mind is limited. We only have so much attention, and by bombarding us frequently and intensely enough they can overcome our mental defenses and get us to make decisions we wouldn’t if we were optimally rational. I can feel this happening when I am hungry and a food ad appears on TV; my autonomic hunger response combined with their expert presentation of food in the perfect lighting makes me want that food, if only for the few seconds it takes my higher cognitive functions to kick in and make me realize that I don’t eat meat and I don’t like mayonnaise.

Car commercials have always been particularly baffling to me. Who buys a car based on a commercial? A decision to spend $20,000 should not be made based upon 30 seconds of obviously biased information. But either people do buy cars based on commercials or they don’t; if they do, consumers are irrational, and if they don’t, car companies are irrational.

Advertising isn’t the source of human irrationality, but it feeds upon human irrationality, and is specifically designed to exploit our own stupidity to make us spend money in ways we wouldn’t otherwise. This means that markets will not be efficient, and huge amounts of productivity can be wasted because we spent it on what they convinced us to buy instead of what would truly have made our lives better. Those companies then profit more, which encourages them to make even more stuff nobody actually wants and sell it that much harder… and basically we all end up buying lots of worthless stuff and putting it in our garages and wondering what happened to our money and the meaning in our lives. Neoclassical economists really need to stop making ridiculous excuses for this damaging and irrational behavior–and maybe then we could actually find a way to make it stop.

Advertising: Someone is being irrational

JDN 2457285 EDT 12:52

I’m working on moving toward a slightly different approach to posting; instead of one long 3000-word post once a week, I’m going to try to do two more bite-sized posts of about 1500 words or less spread throughout the week. I’m actually hoping to work toward setting up a Patreon and making blogging into a source of income.

Today’s bite-sized post is about advertising, and a rather simple, basic argument that shows that irrational economic behavior is widespread.

First, there are advertisements that don’t make sense. They don’t tell you anything about the product, they are often completely absurd, and while sometimes entertaining they are rarely so entertaining that people would pay to see them in theaters or buy them on DVD—which means that any entertainment value they had is outweighed by the opportunity cost of seeing them instead of the actual TV show, movie, or whatever else it was you wanted to see.

If you doubt that there are advertisements that don’t make sense, I have one example in particular for you which I think will settle this matter:

If you didn’t actually watch it, you must. It is too absurd to be explained.

And of course there are many other examples, from Coca-Cola’s weird associations with polar bears to the series of GEICO TV spots about Neanderthals that they thought were so entertaining as to deserve a TV show (the world proved them wrong), to M&M commercials that present a terrifying world in which humans regularly consume the chocolatey flesh of other sapient citizens (and I thought beef was bad!).

Or here’s another good one:

In the above commercial, Walmart attempts to advertise themselves by showing a heartwarming story of a child who works hard to make money by doing odd jobs, including using the model of door-to-door individual sales that Walmart exists to make obsolete. The only contribution Walmart makes to the story is apparently “we have affordable bicycles for children”. Coca-Cola is also thrown in for some reason.

Certain products seem to attract nonsensical advertising more than others, with car insurance being the prime culprit of totally nonsensical and irrelevant commercials, perhaps because of GEICO in particular who do not actually seem to be any good at providing car insurance but instead spend all of their resources making commercials.

Commercials for cars themselves are an interesting case, as certain ads actually appeal in at least a general way to the quality of the vehicle itself:

Then there are those that vaguely allude to qualities of their vehicles, but mostly immerse us in optimistic cyberpunk:

Others, however, make no attempt to say anything about the vehicle, instead spinning us exciting tales of giant hamsters who use the car and the power of dance to somehow form a truce between warring robot factions in a dystopian future (if you haven’t seen this commercial, none of that is a joke; see for yourself below):

So, I hope that I have satisfied you that there are in fact advertisements which don’t make sense, which could not possibly give anyone a rational reason to purchase the product contained within.

Therefore, at least one of the following statements must be true:

1. Consumers behave irrationally by buying products for irrational reasons
2. Corporations behave irrationally by buying advertisements that don’t work

Both could be true (in fact I think both are true), but at least one must be, on pain of contradiction, as long as you accept that there are advertisements which don’t provide rational reasons to buy products. There’s no wiggling out of this one, neoclassicists.

Advertising forms a large part of our economy—Americans spend $171 billion per year on ads, more than the federal government spends on education, and also more than the nominal GDP of Hungary or Vietnam. This figure is growing thanks to the Internet and its proliferation of “free” ad-supported content. Insofar as advertising is irrational, this money is being thrown down the drain.

The waste from spending on ads that don’t work is limited; you can’t waste more than you actually spent. But the waste from buying things you don’t actually need is not limited in the same way; an ad that cost $1 million to air (cheaper than a typical Super Bowl ad) could lead to $10 million in worthless purchases.

I wouldn’t say that all advertising is irrational; some ads do actually provide enough meaningful information about a product that they could reasonably motivate you to buy it (or at least look into buying it), and it is in both your best interest and the company’s best interest for you to have such information.

But I think it’s not unreasonable to estimate that about half of our advertising spending is irrational, either by making people buy things for bad reasons or by making corporations waste time and money on buying ads that don’t work. This amounts to some $85 billion per year, or enough to pay every undergraduate tuition at every public university in the United States.

This state of affairs is not inevitable.

Most meaningless ads could be undermined by regulation; instead of the current “blacklist” model where an ad is legal as long as it doesn’t explicitly state anything that is verifiably false, we could move to a “whitelist” model where an ad is illegal if it states anything that isn’t verifiably true. Red Bull cannot give you wings, Maxwell House isn’t good to the last drop, and Volkswagen needs to be more specific than “round for a reason”. We may never be able to completely eliminate irrelevant emotionally-salient allusions (pictures of families, children, puppies, etc.), but as long as the actual content of the words is regulated it would be much harder to deluge people with advertisements that provide no actual information.

We have a choice, as a civilization: Do we want to continue to let meaningless ads invade our brains and waste the resources of our society?