"We spend more money on antacids than we do on politics," Speaker John Boehner told NBC's Chuck Todd on Sunday, in an effort to downplay concerns about how much money had infiltrated politics. As it turns out, Boehner was wrong about that -- but we're not really sure what difference it makes, anyway.
In the wake of the 2014 elections, Republican consultant Bruce Mehlman cobbled together a number of things on which Americans spend more than we spend on campaigns. Americans spend a lot of money on dumb stuff, America, like $7.4 billion on Halloween. But Americans do not spend more money on antacids, as the Tampa Bay Times points out. Internationally, people spend $10 billion a year on antacids. Domestically, it's closer to $2 billion -- less than the $3.8 billion Americans spent on federal elections (per the Center for Responsive Politics) and much less than we spent on all federal and state elections -- a sum closer to $6 billion, according to the Times' calculations.
We'll add that Americans spend far more on lobbying than antacids, too, to the tune of $3.2 billion in 2014.
Which raises the question: Who are these "Americans" we're talking about?
It's every day folks like you who spend $7.4 billion on Halloween, buying your dog a costume and so on. But it is not every American who lays out cash for a lobbyist. As we noted last week, a fifth of all campaign spending came from 1 percent of 1 percent of Americans, according to the CRP and the Sunlight Foundation. Much of the rest of that money came from people like you, but probably not to the extent that we bought Pepcid and Tums.
Boehner tried to make the same argument when Todd pressed him on the number of special interests in Washington. "Every American belongs to dozens of special interest groups," Boehner said, "whether they want to or not." Retirees are represented by AARP, for example, not that they are all active in tracking what's happening. The point is valid.
But it also distracts from critics' point. The issue isn't that Americans spend more on movies than politics or that we all have lobbyists working on our behalf in D.C., like it or not. Critics worry about the scale of those things 1) relative to how they used to be and 2) as represented by the big money that comes from a small number of sources. If I tried to charge you $15 for an apple, you'd probably think that was excessive. If I tried to argue that Americans paid $600 each for millions of iPhones, would you be convinced? (If so, I would like to sell you this apple.)
Americans spend ten times as much money on lottery tickets each year than they spent on federal and state races in 2014. Like big donors in Senate and House races, they were hoping for a return on that investment. The megadonors were probably more likely to see one.