Monday, September 8, 2008

Political Conventions are a Waste

They say American presidential candidates must sell their product retail. But as the nominating conventions of both major American political parties recede into memory, all I can think is:

Someone just wasted a lot of money.

But then it’s not just the money that's wasted, is it? When I looked at the faces in the convention crowd, I didn't see Republicans and Democrats, Northerners and Southerners, delegates and super-delegates. Instead, I saw tens of thousands of roundtrip airfares and as many or more rental cars. And for what?

Originally intended to facilitate the choice of a candidate by delegates from far-flung states, these conventions have evolved into something entirely other, but, nevertheless wholly American: A product launch.

The major political parties can no longer afford to indulge in the messy, unpredictable nominating conventions of the past. The election cycle has elongated while the news cycle has collapsed on itself. Like celebrities and big corporations, politicians have got to manage their brands. And that means driving news coverage. A successful convention does that.

While it might be good for business, it's a bad model for the 21st century.

Last year, Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA) in the U.K. came to the Carnegie Council for a discussion of Climate Change and the Green Economy. He made several points, but the one that stuck with me related to business travel.

I was just thinking on the way over here, sitting in a business class absolutely filled with business people – all exhausted, all away from their families, all going to business meetings. When is this going to stop? Of course the reason it can’t stop is if you are pitching for a contract and there are five of you competing, and four of you fly, and one of you tries to do it remotely, then you’re going to lose. When is business going to get to the stage where they say, “Actually, we only want to talk to people virtually.”
Both the Democrats and the Republicans tried to sell their conventions as "the greenest convention ever." But that is just preposterous. A green convention would be one where all the delegates stayed home, watched the speeches on YouTube, and cast their votes via secure online connections. Seems like it would be easy to do.

Unfortunately, if one party tries it and it flops, then like the business travellers in Taylor's example the other will feast on that failure.

I know somebody has to lose. But do they have to waste so much doing it?



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Devin Stewart said...

Matthew, some quick comments:

1. Is doing a convention more of a waste than "digging a hole and filling it up" to stimulate the local economy?
2. How is it more of a waste than other events that occur in large venues, like rock concerts?
3. Your business analogy (remote meetings) sounds like many practices that should go away but will take universal practice, like the use of hormones in cattle. Perhaps we can try to change the way people think about remote meetings morally.

Matthew Hennessey said...


Thanks for bringing up some important points.

I emphatically do think that political conventions are more of a waste than stimulating a local economy in the manner described.

If the primary function of a make-work job is to keep someone from starving, or to keep a local community alive until new industries take root, then it is hard to see that as a real waste in any moral sense.

The primary function of a political convention, by contrast, is to launch an individual candidacy - at best a succesful product demo, at worst a selfish delusion.

I'm not saying that conventions don't offer something of value to the world, or the local communities where they take place. I'm just saying that there is perhaps a less wasteful, less indulgent way of going about it. One that employs technology, ingenuity and political courage in equal measures.

On your second point, I think we can agree that there should be a mechanism for "pricing in" the externalities generated by rock concerts, sporting events and other large-venue events. These externalities are quite similar to those generated by political conventions. They include carbon emissions, trash, noise &c.

Political conventions, however, are notable for their length (3-4 days), and the great distances travelled to and from the event by the delegates. The pricing of those externalities should therefore be an order of magnitude greater, yet we don't see this.

On your last point, of course there are many bothersome practices in the world - some vulnerable to moral suasion, some that must simply be tolerated amiably. In this instance, however, I am appealing to a moral argument in that I am basing my desire to end these conventions on logic (and an economic logic at that).

They are wasteful precisely because they are costly - and the costs are not born by the consumers (the political parties, the candidates, the conventioneers). They are instead born by all of us whether we support the candidate or not, whether we support conventions or not.

And all that is guaranteed is that one party will lose it all.

Kendlina said...

At the DNC alone they used 50 million simply for "security." And the RNC, which its violence against protesters and journalists, pre-emptive arrests, putting independant news sources under house arrest, and torturing activists in prison I'm sure had an even larger budget.

On Politik said...

Matthew, I appreciate your concern over the green cost, especially in terms of air pollution, but this seems to be a wee bit on the harsh side. Per the Denver Business Journal, the DNC brought in $150mn to $200mn to the local economy ( which strikes me as better then just dgging a hole.

What's more, as someone just back from the DNC press team, I can tell you that we generated 40% less paper over the course of the Convention then was the case in Boston in '04.

As for it's political value, I reckon we gained 4% to our popular vote as a result and that is priceless electorally.

Was the Convention as Green as was possible? No. Was it the greenest Convention yet? Yes.