Back in my younger column-writing days, I regularly studied reports of money spent for various political races and compared that spending to the amount South Dakota budgeted for some of its state agencies and programs.
I didn’t make any comments on the numbers. I just put them into an article and filed it for the newspaper to consider publishing. I figured readers could look at the information and draw their own conclusions about the value of the comparisons.
As regular readers of my writing probably know, I have spent most of my life firmly convinced that if citizens of this nation are given as much straightforward information as possible, they’ll review it, reflect on it and come to conclusions that make sense for them and for their country. In journalism classes we called that a “free exchange of ideas in the marketplace of truth.’’ That approach served the country well for a long time. Most people read and listened to a variety of information. Formally or informally, they evaluated the quality of the information and the credibility of its sources and reached their own reasoned conclusions about the value of the information. It was a pretty good system.
I don’t think it works quite as well as it once did. Fewer newspapers mean fewer sources of carefully vetted, generally circulated information. Also, some people spend less time evaluating. Some social media sites are indifferent to the credibility of their offerings. Others, aware that their information is sketchy, are okay with that if it causes people to doubt other facts and sources. I still believe a majority of people try to rely on factual sources. I just think it is more and more difficult to sort out the reliable sources from the phony stuff. That makes it more important than ever for people who present information to give the source of that information so readers and viewers can examine the source and determine its credibility for themselves.
I recently bumped into a bit of information that said the winning candidates for seats in the U.S. Senate last election cycle spent an average of $15.7 million in their campaigns. (That information came from Open Secrets.Org, a group that keeps track of campaign finance issues). If $15.7 million is the average, then obviously some spent more and some spent less. I shudder to think how much more some might have spent. I suspect it could be quantified as “a lot.’’
The highest paying job I ever had was as a news reporter at a daily paper. At my peak, shortly before I was offered an early retirement buy-out, I earned right at $50,000 a year. At that rate, I’d have had to work 14 years to accumulate even the “point-seven’’ portion of the $15.7 million average spending by a winning Senate candidate. Gosh, 14 years of full-time work for me would be little more than a decimal point after-thought in one of those Senate campaigns.
A seat in the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives carries an annual salary of $174,000. (Information from Senate.gov). That’s a hefty paycheck for most of us in South Dakota, where the median household income is something like $56,500 a year. (Statistics on the U.S. Census Bureau’s website). While, as I said, $174,000 is a ton of money for most of the people I know, I’m sure it’s little more than chump change in some social circles in some parts of the country.
What catches my attention isn’t really the dollar amount of the average Senate campaign but that people spend that much money for a job that’s going to pay them $174,000 a year. In six years — the length of a Senate term — a person would earn about $1 million. That’s one-fifteenth of the average spending to win that seat, assuming the math skills Howard Elrod taught me at Chamberlain High School haven’t deserted me.
So candidates last election collected and spent $15.7 million for Senate seats that pay $174,000 a year? When my dad was alive, he’d have said something about those numbers doesn’t add up. All I can say is, the whole system is ridiculous.