Politics informed by math #3 – “Money is speech”

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Supreme Court Justices may know the law, but I am not convinced that they know math. This post is a little exercise in the math behind the conservative dictum that “money is speech.” To cut to the chase, and if indeed, “money is speech,” then a family whose net wealth in 1963 was in the 99th percentile of U.S. families had about 29 times the “speech power” of a family in the 50th percentile. However by 2016, that 99th-percentile family had grown to 107 times the “speech power” of the average 50th-percentile household. When you get to the 99.9th percentile, representing about 126,000 households, that “power ratio” goes up asymptotically toward the sky.

And it is getting worse quickly. If you can grant that huge dollars spent on political speech influences basic democracy in any correlated way, then the political power of the bottom half of the country is eroding quickly into impotent subservience.

Another way to look at this shift of political power is to look at the political contributions of billionaire Sheldon Adelson, estimated by Forbes this year to be worth about $35.5 billion (a “speech power ratio” of over 300,000 times the median family). In 2016, Adelson’s estimated campaign contributions amounted to about $43.5 million. This seems on the surface to be a lot of money (and it is). However, if you were in that 50% percentile group with a family net worth of roughly $100,000 in 2016, this would have been the equivalent financial pain of you contributing $123. How did that contribution work out for you? “Speech power” makes a difference.

The Supreme Court and money/speech

The intrusion of imbalanced “speech power” on U.S. elections has been an incremental process. The first major Supreme Court case that challenged limits on political spending while citing a First Amendment “free speech” rationale was Buckley v. Valeo (1976). In this case, the courts upheld limits on political contributions, but struck down limits on candidate spending. Justice Byron White’s dissent asserted that Congress had legitimately limited election spending, seeing the rising power of money “as a mortal danger against which effective preventive and curative steps must be taken.” Justice White had obviously “done the math.”

Next came First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978), which extended “free speech” rights to corporations for the first time. In the infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) case, the courts removed basically all restrictions on campaign spending by corporations and other groups, but upheld requirements for public disclosure of contributions. Finally, in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (2014), the court struck down aggregate limits on individual spending, allowing Adelson and others to drop hundreds of millions of dollars of “speech bombs” into the 2016 election.

Speech bombs and the Rule of 72

The math that was missing from these Supreme Court cases concerns the fast-changing dynamics of wealth holdings in the United States over the last 30 years, which has had an incredible effect on relative societal power. Here is a great comparison of household wealth changes from 1963 to 2016, stated in constant 2016 dollars, from the Urban Institute: [1]

Family Wealth 1963-2016

This “speech power ratio” of relative wealth comparing the top 1% to the median family has always been high in America, but clearly the spread has been getting much larger in recent years, as noted above. And using that math, the bottom 10% of households have had figuratively negative “speech power” in some years.

Net family wealth is just one measure of rising income inequality, and there are many interlaced reasons for it. Back in January I presented a series of posts that looked at one other factor, income levels, measured by the Rule of 72. This accounting rule-of-thumb says that you can estimate how long it takes for an investment or salary level to double simply by dividing the annual compound growth rate of the investment into 72. Thus, a salary or estate growing at 3% per year will double in 24 years, while a 10% growth rate will double that value in only about 7 years.

It is possible to explain much of the chart above using this math. What growth rate (after inflation) would bring that 50th-percentile family from its 1963 worth of $41,028 (in 2016 dollars) up to the 2016 value of $97,300? Using the “time value of money” calculation on which the Rule of 72 is based, this increase indicates an average compounded annual growth rate of family wealth of just 1.23%, taking almost 60 years to double. [2] For the average person at the 99th percentile, however, a 3.78% average annual growth rate in wealth was sufficient to grow from $1,457,201 to $10,400,000 in 2016 dollars over that same period of time, a doubling rate of just 19 years.

The three-year period from 2013 to 2016 tells a different story, however. During that period of strong economic growth, the wealth of the 50%-percentile family grew at an annual rate of about 5% per year (14 years to double), while the wealth of the 99th-percentile family grew by 8.5% (or 8.5 years to double). Much of the “widening out” of income inequality and family wealth inequality can be explained by that spread of growth rates alone. Richer families have more money to invest, and with higher-return options, and so their incomes and assets grow at a faster rate. The “time value of money” alone at differential interest rates, over periods of relatively-low inflation, created much of this dramatic shift of wealth to the high end.

And of course, at the bottom end, even a 10% growth on zero dollars of wealth is still zero dollars.

“One person, one vote” versus “one dollar, one vote”

So, how does this differential in wealth translate to political power? I wrote in an earlier post that “money is choice.” Especially once you get past the hard choices of basic survival needs, the available choices expand, and one of those choices is the literal purchase of political power. I also wrote an earlier post that looks at how the Supreme Court has struck down virtually all types of political bribery except for the very overt swap of cash for services, resulting in what I call “wink and a nod consideration” for all types of political chicanery.

A citizen’s franchise to vote theoretically can offset an imbalance of “speech power.” Regardless of the number of media advertisements and planted stories in my news feeds, I theoretically have the ability to vote “as I choose.” However, the reality of human behavior upon which much of the media and internet worlds are financed is that the “advertising funnel” works to change peoples’ minds via “purchased opinions.” We often deny that the media we let into our lives impacts our consumer and political choices, but the facts tell a different story.

There may not be a dollar-for-vote lock-step here, but there certainly is a statistical correlation between the level of political spending and political results. This relationship is probabilistic in nature, not certain, as some major “purchased vote” failures in the past have evidenced, but if you have enough “speech power” and plenty of money to spend, the odds are clearly with you much more often than not.

When you add the even larger aggregations of wealth in the hands of corporations, now also free to “purchase votes,” then the concept of “one person, one vote” becomes a sad joke. “Rule by the oligarchy” has become a reality in the United States, and that means democracy is taking its dying breaths.


Notes:

  1. McKernan, Signe-Mary, et al. “Nine Charts about Wealth Inequality in America.” The Urban Institute, 4 Oct. 2017.
  2. Clearly families come and go from the 50th (or any) percentile group over the years, but this is the average. If the 1963 value is the present value (PV), the 2016 value is the future value (FV) and 53 years have passed from 1963 to 2016, the formula is FV = PV*(1 + i)53 where i is the compound interest rate. An online calculator for the time value of money is located here.

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