July 01, 2003

Cash, the Concrete and Political Abstractions: Towards a New Economy of Ideas

Harry Potter did $100 million in book sales just last weekend alone. A successful Hollywood movie does $100 million in a few weeks.

The reason that political giving does not reach these sorts of totals —in a nation of over 280 million people—is not that people don’t value the presidency—but that the conventional mechanisms for political donating don’t scale. George Bush’s money is raised through small networks of wealthy individuals who tap their friends, family, and business associates. While this network is effective up to a point, it cannot compare to the scalability of a nationwide system of theaters, retail stores, or the Internet.

- Jim Moore

That's from Moore's post linked previously. And he's entirely right. But there is another dynamic at work here as well, one that politicians and non-profits have never successfully addressed. These groups are in the business of selling abstract ideas. A politician is selling the idea that he can improve the nation, community or world. An non profit sells the idea that they can fix a particular range of problems. They are selling intangible products.

Corporations on the other hand sell tangibility. A soda you can drink, a service that effects you quickly. These are easy sells. People are willing to drop $100 million on Harry Potter because they walk of with a book in their hands, or at least in the mail.

What do you get when you give to a politician or non profit? Its hard to say, maybe a t-shirt or mug if you are lucky. And then if things work out you get the reward way down the road, when you read the paper and hear you're candidate or group is doing a good job.

Now there is a massive amount of support for political and social action in the abstract. But cash is concrete. Credit cards and the internet make it a bit less tangible, but we still feel the flow of money. Its finite and has concrete effects. The problem facing candidates is that they need to transform abstract support into cold hard cash. Right now they use a few techniques, the main being face time with the candidate (for the wealthy only). They also throw in those mugs, stickers and t-shirts. You know the ones no one really wants unless they are obsessive...

The internet solves some of the problem by making the flow of money less concrete. Its easier to part with money by clicking on a link then by handing over cash or writing a check. But it still takes motivation to click that link. And how often do you wake up and say I feel like giving some money away to a candidate?

What politicians and non profits need to do is provide a more concrete method for abstract supporters of the cause to transfer their money. Here's one potential way it could work.

Suppose you are thirsty and walking down the street. You walk into the nearest store and head to the bottled water section. The usual corporate brands are there, Crystal Geyser, Poland Spring, Arrowhead, etc. But there is also bottles of Howard Dean and George Bush water on the shelf. They are well branded and taste great. (And whoever says water has no taste is just wrong). You can give your money to some corporation or you can give your money to a political cause. What are you going to do? I'd say most people would support a cause they care for.

So someone buys a Howard Dean water, and the campaign makes 20¢. 5 million supporters buying one bottle a day equals a million dollars a day in campaign funds. $350 million a year. More then the whole presidential election is expected to cost, for all the candidates combined... And that wouldn't even put a dent in the multi-billion dollar US market for bottled water.

Now this raises a lot of issues I don't have time to get into at the moment, but the bottom line is that opening up new paths for people to express their political views could transform politics dramatically. For the better and for the worse, but more for the better. More soon.

Posted by William Blaze at July 1, 2003 08:24 PM | TrackBack

here's another alternative: www.paydemocracy.com

Posted by: Chad on July 2, 2003 01:03 AM

The bottled-water thing is a good moral purchasing (http://wikipedia.org/wiki/moral_purchasing ) thing.
Good idea. This might also be of interest:

Posted by: Consumerium on August 2, 2003 04:57 PM

nice, thanks for the links

Posted by: William Blaze on August 3, 2003 03:52 PM
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