Did the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act “Bend the Cost Curve” on Campaign Spending?

Apparently, it did!

On Thursday, I produced a graph and some older papers in economics that made the case that there is a pretty clear trend in campaign spending that was completely unaffected by the 2002 BCRA. However, I’m a philosopher, not an econometrician, so I left off the most important part: comparing growth in campaign spending to growth in inflation and GDP. The numbers I used were absolute totals, and there didn’t seem to have been any effect from the BCRA or Citizens United. Today I sat down to expand on the earlier point, and produced the following chart:

This graph tells a different story than the last one: we can see a clear “bend” after 2002, and another after 2008. Thus, it’s plausible to suppose that BCRA did bend the cost curve: we spent less of our GDP on elections while its important provisions were in effect.

My point yesterday was to offer some predictions and beliefs about the effects of BCRA that militated in favor of overturning it. I maintain that norms are engaged in a reflective equilibrium with our beliefs about the facts of the matter, and that sometimes inaccurate predictions can masquerade as principles. I still think this is true, and I’d only expand that claim: visual representations of facts can and do make arguments. Thursday I made a bad graph, and thus a bad argument. Today I retract it.

These new facts must still be interpreted in light of principles: perhaps the effect size is too small to justify the criminalization of partisan political speech. Perhaps the Rent Seeking Model still applies, and politicians were able to extract fewer rents from businesses during the reign of BCRA. (Perhaps, too, we owe it to shareholders to protect them from the unwanted expenditures of the companies they own.) For now I just want to point out that this does give us evidence against the “no effect” hypothesis.

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