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Many people seem to have been laboring under the assumption that last night's elections would be the be-all, end-all for economic health, with each side convinced their candidate was the only thing between us and destruction. Regardless of who won or lost, it's easy to believe that one thing destined to stay the same either way is our society's devolution into "crony capitalism," with a heavy emphasis on the "crony" part and a pretty twisted ideal of the "capitalism" component.
The worst insult to the common good may actually be how much perfectly good money was squandered -- as much as $6 billion all told, according to some estimates -- for the political theatrics and empty promises that culminated in last night's tallies. It's doubtful that the old-buddy-business setup would have changed regardless of the outcome.
We investors like to think about the productive use of money. For those of us who invest with an eye on actual business quality, our expectation isn't just to make money (although that of course is a major part of investing), but to make money because we have invested in solid entities that efficiently use our money to grow.
The reason portfolios flourish and give off returns over the very long term is that the companies we invest in create better products, expand, focus on innovation, attract customer loyalty, and so forth.
Sadly enough, though, our economy has been in the throes of a system that doesn't always use capital very efficiently. A big point in fact today is that both major presidential candidates broke records with their spending on their respective campaigns in 2012. This infographic shows the stunning comparisons to past presidential campaign expenditures for more than 100 years.
OpenSecrets.org blew the lid off the spending (and contributing) that helped make this epic event possible. As of Oct. 25, about $2 billion was spent on the combined campaigns of both Presidential candidates, and they got a little help from some moneyed friends. Add in nearly as much for Senate and House races, and you'll see just how important money has become in elections.
Although President Barack Obama's top contributor was the University of California, his second and third highest contributors were Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , respectively. Through vehicles such as their PACs, both companies kicked in more than $700,000 apiece.
Of course, opponent Mitt Romney wasn't exactly hurting himself, and apparently bankers were particularly enamored of him. The top contributor to his campaign was none other than Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) , with a total contribution of $994,139. Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) came in close behind, with a $921,839 contribution. Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS ) offered up about $792,000. (Again, these dollars filtered through PACS.)
Were these good, productive uses of shareholder money? I'd argue not. The historic flood of campaign spending helps illustrate the deteriorating state of our marketplace, where money buys influence and even regulatory favoritism.
Seeing Google figuring prominently on that list is a sad day, indeed. The Internet should have been an awe-inspiring force for grassroots efforts to allow more people access to political positions, since it's a cheap way to get the word out. Unfortunately, it looks as if the unintended consequence has simply been for candidates -- mostly career politicians -- to spend more money to win those elections and make any upstart irrelevant.
In fact, Fast Company recently covered a rather depressing development: Tech companies have finally come around to the idea of lobbying. "For years, Valley players saw Washington as anathema to innovation, a place they were dragged unwillingly ... But eventually the garage start-ups that had once worried about survival grew into multinational corporations concerned with regulation and taxes. And they grudgingly began making their way east."
The article revealed that both Google and Facebook (Nasdaq: FB ) increased their overall lobbying expenditures this year, with Google dropping $3.9 million and Facebook spending nearly $1 million ... in the second quarter alone.
Expensive theater tickets
I've long advocated for corporate disclosure of political spending. Shareholders of publicly traded companies deserve full transparency about where shareholder money goes. It's worthwhile to note if a company is spending plenty of money on political machinations when it may be slipping in actual business quality and competitive advantage.
Speaking of votes, whenever there's a shareholder vote demanding such political spending disclosures in our proxy statements, let's vote in favor of that disclosure. However, one thing we might hope for in the next four years is for more individuals and corporations to actually start questioning what truly productive uses of capital really are; call me crazy, but such expenditures would probably be the ones that create new products, bring on job growth, and jettison our economy forward.
Spending on Washington's ongoing theater of the absurd really shouldn't make the list. Unfortunately for many politicians and their contributors, apparently the only thing that's certain is that the show must go on; too bad its run has lasted for years now.
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Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.