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An anthropologist on political donations

- October 17, 2010

Gillian Tett, the Financial Times‘ US editor, has a Ph.D. in anthropology. Her take on political donations and PAC’s is [very interesting](http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/cea3aae8-d66a-11df-81f0-00144feabdc0.html).

>The reason for this distinction is that Pacs are funded via donations from senior staff. More specifically, in many companies, fundraising e-mails are dispatched to staff, “encouraging” them to “voluntarily” donate. Employees rarely discuss this, due to embarrassment or resentment. “I hate giving money to Pacs, since I can’t choose where it goes,” one senior Wall Street banker recently grumbled to me. But the pressure to participate is high. And since these Pacs typically donate money to both Democrat and Republican politicians, the practice ends up operating in the sphere of generalised reciprocity, as an anthropologist might say, not dissimilar to church tithes, taxes, or even wedding exchanges in some Himalayan cultures. Nobody wants to openly state what is being “bought”, or measure whether it is value for money; after all, in America nobody is supposed to buy political control. But opting out is perceived to carry a cost.

>Usually banks and other corporate Pacs try to split their donations fairly equally between the Republican and Democrat candidates, to ensure that they get access whoever wins. It is, in a sense, a type of tribal insurance policy. But since the giving is so personal, it creates even more of an implied pattern of exchange (ie in exchange for financial support, I expect to see policies I like). However, in recent months, banks have been so angry with Obama – and so keen to persuade the Republicans to soften financial reform – that Pac flows from commercial banks have been 55 per cent tilted to Republican candidates.

What is interesting in Tett’s account is the focus on _diffuse reciprocity_ – i.e. the suggestion that donations do not involve a specific _quid pro quo_ but are part of a more general pattern of exchange in which no one actor’s contribution is explicitly conditioned on another’s, but in which any actor’s withdrawal from reciprocity is perceived as carrying costs. Political scientists do not usually work on diffuse reciprocity – an exception is Gary Miller’s account in _Managerial Dilemmas._ Marshall Sahlin’s _Stone Age Economics_ provides one of the classic accounts in anthropology (in sociology, see also Mauss’s The Gift).