When Political Ideas Have Costs

Would the debate about health care reform end differently if Senators' own health care coverage were at risk? Right now talk and inaction are relatively cheap for US legislators, since their own health care plan will likely remain the same whether legislation is passed or not. Our research shows though that when political ideas have a cost, people on Capitol Hill are more likely to take action on important issues.

If you listen to debates in Washington about corporate social responsibility, Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to encourage corporations to live up to a set of ideals in areas such as the environment, workplace conditions, business practices, human rights, and community relations. Democratic legislators take pride in supporting regulations to curb pollution or policies to restrict trade with countries based on human rights records. Yet when you look at how Congress members cast their investor dollar votes, a different pattern emerges.

If you look at the financial disclosure forms filed by Congress members, you can find the top 50 companies that Representatives and Senators list as part of their stock ownership holdings. The Calvert Group rates many of these companies based on how socially responsible they are in areas such as the environment and human rights. Given the differences in the voting records by party, you might expect Democrats to invest in more socially responsible firms. Yet when you actually look at where Congress members are investing, Democratic legislators are not more likely to invest in socially responsible firms.

We also looked at the corporate PACs for the top fifty companies in legislator portfolios in 2005. Here again the investments of Democratic and Republican legislators look very similar. Both Democrats and Republicans invested in companies whose PACs gave a majority of their donations to Republicans.

In making investment decisions, some people will take the time and effort to investigate whether the firms they hold stock in are acting in ways that are consistent with their world views. Being a socially conscious investor has some hassle costs of gathering information, and your overall options to invest are reduced if you don't want to have holdings in Big Oil, Big Pharma, and Big Tobacco.

In our research, we've found that people willing to pay a price for their world view are easy to spot. If you measure Altruism by things like giving blood and willingness to serve on jury duty, that trait leads people to act on costly ideas. People strong on Altruism are more likely to vote and to live the life of the green consumer. They're even more likely to get a flu shot.

For some people, concern for others leads them to engage in social investing. Ironically, the people whose day jobs revolve around many of the issues involved in corporate social responsibility -- Senators and Representatives -- don't appear to act on these principles when they assemble their own portfolios.

The disconnect between the policies that people pursue by day and the way they live their lives after work is also evident in another political set - Congressional staffers. If you look at political contribution records at the Federal Election Commission, you can see the home addresses of congressional staffers who make donations to campaigns. When we matched these addresses up to census block group data, a neighborhood size averaging about 1700 people, we found that there is a lot of variation in where Hill staffers choose to live in the Washington DC area.

Political party, however, does not explain much about whether a staffer lives in a more diverse neighborhood. Whether you measure neighborhood diversity by race, income, or education, staffers who work to implement very different political worldviews appear to choose very similar neighborhoods. Both Democratic and Republican congressional staffers as a group choose to live in neighborhoods that have higher incomes and educations and a lower percentages of minority residents than the D.C. metro area averages.

To explore this further, we categorized staffers by the NAACP ratings of the legislators they work for. Once again, we found that staffers who work for members of Congress with very different NAACP scores go home to neighborhoods that are nearly identical in terms of many measures of diversity.

Why doesn't politics spill over more into the private lives of staffers? Simply put, it's the cost. Congressional staffers tend to have good educations and relatively high incomes; they choose neighborhoods where the residents share these characteristics. Any whatever party they belong to, they probably have very similar goals for their children. Thus the choice of where to live is also a choice for many parents of where to send their children to school.

It's always hard to tell from a vote in Congress how a representative truly feels about an issue. A Representative's vote in favor of health care reform, for example, could indicate a belief that this is the best policy solution, or a belief that this reflects the preferences of her constituents, or a belief that this is the best way to get re-elected in a close race. There is often a great gap between the votes and rhetoric of Democrats and Republicans on the Hill. But when you look at their own personal choices that are less likely to get scrutiny, such as where to live or how to invest, people who work in politics are less likely to consume an ideology if it has a price.

The human subjects review panel at Duke would be unlikely to approve an experiment where we randomly assigned legislators to have different types and levels of health care. Senators and

Representatives would be even less enthusiastic about signing up for the experiment. But it would be interesting and instructive if we could start the voting on health care reform with true variation in health care coverage among the legislators, and then see how lack of personal coverage affected the willingness of Senators and Representatives to block action on health care reform.

Scott de Marchi and James T. Hamilton are the authors of You Are What You Choose: The Habits of Mind that Really Determine How We Make Decisions.