more money where your mouth is

(followup to this post)
Democracy means you get one vote per election, but the influence of money on politics means you get another kind of vote every time you buy something. Choose The Blue gives you a guide to voting Democrat with your dollars. (They might think about changing the name for the next election cycle, when the incumbent will likely be coloured blue.)
For instance: of fifteen gasoline retailers listed, only one (Shell) donated more to Dems than to Repubs. Similarly, of 17 car manufacturers only Toyota donated more to Dems. Even these two companies hedged their bets, 57/43 and 74/26 respectively, and Toyota dealers skewed strongly Republican, so you might consider buying a bike; unfortunately, Choose The Blue doesn’t yet list bicycle manufacturers. If you have to have a car, you also have to insure it, so give Progressive Insurance first refusal on your business if you can. If you want a car stereo, buy Sony; that goes for other kinds of consumer electronics as well.
And so on, and on. Every purchase you make has political ramifications. Politically informed consumer choices are not only an essential component of living according to your principles, but also a powerful and relatively easy way to have an impact on the political process.
Of course, “relatively” covers a lot of ground, and the primary barrier to informed consumer choice is a lack of information. As good as Choose The Blue is, there are a lot of things it doesn’t yet cover — like, say, bicycle manufacturers. If you know the relevant company or individual names, you can do a soft money search or donor lookup at opensecrets.org, the website of the Center for Responsive Politics. The power search at Follow The Money allows you to look at donations in State politics (note that the interface is a bit screwy and takes some getting used to). Political Money Line is selling information, but makes some available for free; this includes individual donations (including 527s) and industry totals (hard money only) grouped according to NAICS. Of course, you can always go to the source and run a disclosure data search at the Federal Election Commission, but the search interface is very limited and section 527 advocacy groups don’t have to file with the FEC anyway. They can file with the relevant state government, some of which may provide that information to the public, or the IRS which, at least on its website, doesn’t seem to. [An aside: the difference between hard and soft money is explained in some detail here, and more briefly here.]
So, to return to the example at hand: who the hell knows the names of bicycle manufacturers? I tried searching for a few common brand names (Schwinn, Mongoose, Trek, Giant) but didn’t get anywhere: you need the parent company’s name. Or more accurately, you need the name under which the donation was made; for a number of reasons (not all of them related to malfeasance!) that could be hard to find. For example, it turns out that Schwinn and Mongoose are both owned by Pacific Cycle, which is owned by Dorel Industries; neither of those names turns up anything useful either. So then I figured, maybe industry totals would be useful. At Follow The Money, using “selected business” we find that “sporting goods sales & manufacturing” donated a total of $11,850, mostly to Dems, across all states in 2004. At Political Money Line, industry totals–>manufacturing tells us that “sporting and athletic goods, nec” (what does the “nec” mean?) donated $56,000 to Dems and $20,500 to Repubs in 2003-4. (But if you check the NAICS, it turns out that bicycles fall under “Motorcycle, Bicycle, and Parts Manufacturing”, not “Sporting and Athletic Goods Manufacturing”, and you have to subscribe to Political Money Line to dig any further.) Those are all small amounts of money relative to the hundreds of millions being splashed around during the election cycle, but it’s not at all clear where bicycle manufacturers fit in and we have no federal or soft money data. If I’m trying to buy a bike and avoid Republican supporters, none of that helps.
There are ways around this lack of information, to some extent. I can’t find out about manufacturers, but I can check out the dealers: for instance, here in Portland I might consider buying my bike from The Bike Gallery (first result of a Google search). A quick search of their website turns up the name of the owner, and opensecrets.org tells me that he donated $2300 to Dem candidates and $2000 to the Bikes Belong Coalition — so I’d be happy to shop there.
Even if Choose The Blue develops (as I hope they will) a really comprehensive database, their focus is at the level of brands and parent companies, so it looks as though there’s no substitute for that sort of detailed research at the local level. I plan to put together a little collection of information on the local businesses I frequent, so it occurs to me that a central repository for such information might be a useful thing. Anyone out there want to build it? I’d certainly be willing to help out with design and costs.