Thursday, January 21, 2010

The opportunity cost of elections

During the 2008 campaign, tens of thousands of people turned out to volunteer on behalf of Barack Obama, staffing phone banks, raising funds and creating a network of likeminded individuals dedicated to a shared purpose (to a lesser extent, so did volunteers, as there were, for John McCain). But while a bedazzling amount of human and financial resources were displayed, no doubt, it’s not clear they were put to the best use, to put it mildly. Take your self-styled progressive who -- for whatever inexplicable reason -- thought the election of Obama would mark the advent of a brave new single-payer nation, the president abandoning his traditional role as commander in chief in favor of performing gay marriages in the White House Rose Garden. The fear -- and love -- of Sarah Palin can make people do all sorts of crazy things.

But what if those resources, instead of being dedicated to bringing one of two militaristic corporatists to power, were instead put to a better cause? What if, instead of relying on politicians as the middlemen, those who put so much time and effort in getting Obama elected in the hopes of achieving meaningful health care reform -- relying on politicians as the middle men, hoping they keep their lofty campaign promises -- had redirected those efforts to taking power into their own hands and bring affordable health care to their own communities? Given comparable resources to those put toward a frivolous and overhyped pursuit like an election, community groups could have instead begun the process of bringing affordable health care to their own neighborhoods, redirecting the misallocation of energy from empowering some politician toward a cause much more likely to bring tangible results.

What in economics is called an “opportunity cost” -- the inability to expend resources on one task after another is chosen -- is equally applicable to the field of politics: when activists band together on behalf of electing more and better politicians, they aren’t banding together to improve their own communities, clean up their own rivers, stop the next war. While one would hope connections made during election campaigns would persist afterwards, and that those involved in electing Obama would continue to work towards shared (though better) causes, the evidence suggests that a year after his inauguration much of that movement, insofar as it was, has disbanded. With the reality of power, much of the hopeful idealism -- or naivete -- of some during the campaign has evaporated; the organizing power of the Obama political machine severely hampered by the lack of enthusiasm for the president’s policies. With the collapse in peoples’ hope for change comes a commensurate curbing in the power of the groups that arose to support Obama, indicating that organizing power won't be around to help a neighbor during hard times.

My advice: next time around, instead of phone-banking for Obama, one should spend that time that would have spent trying to convince some Iowan the president really means it this time giving back to your own community -- you might actually see a few changes.


  1. Sadly, most will give back to their own community by driving a Prius with an Obama sticker on it. They'll say they're "enlightening" everyone who sees the "message" of a Prius for Obama.

  2. The people who voluntarily act on the principle you advocate are already making important changes; you can find them maligned in the news all the time. Some, like Cindy Sheehan, become celebrated, but most do not. And even the celebrated ones involved in mobilizing moral sanction often operate out of pocket. Those drawn to working within the system of career activism, however, frequently function as obstacles to change. Anyone who believed working for Obama would make a difference is unlikely to grasp that.

  3. Charles,

    Don't discount the power of a Prius. Because of its reduced environmental footprint, when Obama-voting liberals speed through impoverished urban areas full of minorities on their way to the Crate & Barrel, they are emitting 1/200th less pollution than their gas-guzzling, Rethuglican counterparts. That has to count for something.


    You're probably right that most Obama voters are too far gone -- and far too complacent -- to take power into their own hands; indeed, the idea is no doubt foreign and a bit kooky to them. Pulling a lever every couple years for a Democrat seems to be all that's necessary for your typical liberal to feel satisfied that they are morally superior to their right-wing in-laws.