Getting Real About Money in Politics

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco

This ain’t no fooling around

No time for dancing, or lovey dovey

I ain’t got time for that now

—Talking Heads, “Life During Wartime”

About 300 news cycles ago, or last month, the political-technology crowd spent a lot of time hyperventilating over a new project called “Win the Future” (or WTF for short) that was launched by billionaires Marc Pincus of Zynga and Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn. The effort, which they are reported to be backing with $500,000 in initial funding, is seeking to crowdsource new ideas for the Democratic party and then promises to rent billboards in and around Washington, DC to inject them into the Beltway discourse.

Longtime netroots organizer and progressive policy wonk Matt Stoller wrote a post for Buzzfeed criticizing WTF as the latest example of “enlightened business leaders [deciding] that they represent the voice of the forgotten, centrist masses.” Vanity Fair’s headline called it “everything that’s wrong with Silicon Valley.” Progressive strategist Jeff Hauser derided WTF as “No Labels 2.0” in the Huffington Post. Chris O’Brien of VentureBeat ventured to tell Pincus and Hoffman to “do the hard work of organizing” and “go knock on doors.” (Chris O’Brien’s bio on the VentureBeat site says that he’s based in Toulouse, France, “where he is conducting a three-year, government-backed study to determine how much cassoulet, butter and wine a single human can consume on a daily basis.”) Apparently, Pincus was “reeling” from all these negative responses, as Sean Captain put it in FastCompany.

Well, I think everyone is missing the point. Win the Future isn’t yet an initiative worth talking about, let alone hyperventilating over. That’s because everyone is ignoring a basic fact about its existence, and by extension nearly every other project that the billionaires who are dabbling in politics have put into play in recent years. With a mere $500,000 in initial support from Pincus and Hoffman, it’s vastly underfunded.

But no one sees this, because we are all innumerate when it comes to the relative scale of money in politics in the Age of Big Money. Mark Pincus is worth $1.38 billion, according to Forbes. Hoffman is worth $3.2 billion. Which means, if I am doing my math right, that the $500,000 they have reportedly committed to WTF is equal to .0000896 of their total combined net worth. That’s nine-one-thousands-of-a-percent.

I know everyone who struggled with math in school is starting to glaze over as they read this, so let me put it in terms that might make it more intelligible. Let’s say your net worth is $500,000. You own a home, and maybe you are still paying off the mortgage, but you’ve got some equity in it. Plus you have some retirement IRAs and some savings, enough to maybe cover a a half-year of lost income if you had to suddenly stop working. You are comfortably in the top 5%. (40% of Americans don’t have enough money in the bank to find $500 to cover a sudden health emergency, please note.)

But in relative terms, all you have to do to match Pincus and Hoffman’s generous donation to WTF, in terms of how much they feel its cost, is write a check for $45. Forty-five dollars to someone with a net worth of half a million smackers is what $500,000 is to them. I think any of my or Mark’s or Reid’s grandparents would have a nice pungent response to this: It’s not even bupkis.

For all my years working on the problem of money in politics, and more recently as someone who has met with and raised money from more than my share of billionaires and centimillionaires, I never stopped to consider the relative cost of many Big Donations until a conversation I recently had with Dmitri Mehlhorn, a political strategist, civic entrepreneur and human dynamo who co-founded the Hope Street Group, Students First and the Greater New England Public School Alliance and served as senior advisor to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, among many other impressive accomplishments.

“Imagine you’re sitting across from Mike Bloomberg,” Mehlhorn says, noting that he worked for the media mogul and former New York City Mayor for a while as the president of Bloomberg’s BNA Legal Division after earlier getting funding from Bloomberg’s foundation for his nonprofit efforts. “Let’s say he’s worth $60 billion.” (Some estimates suggest it may be double that.) “And you’re pitching a project to solve some big world problem and you need $100 million. The thing to point out is this—that is a big number, but as a percentage of what you are worth, it’s not.”

In our hypothetical case of someone with a half million in assets, it would be $833, to be precise.

Call it the Skin in the Game Ratio. Believe it or not, for all the press they get, if you want to have proportionately as much skin in the game as the titans of money in politics, you don’t have to do much.

And it’s not just Pincus and Hoffman for whom this is true. Take the Koch brothers, Charles and David. According to Jane Mayer, writing in the New Yorker, by 2010, they had donated more than $100 million to an array of free-market and advocacy organizations. At that time, they were worth $35 billion, according to Forbes, making their total investment just barely three-tenths of one-percent of their net worth. In 2016, when they pledged to spend $989 million on influencing the election (ultimately it was more like $750 million), it was other people’s money they were talking about mobilizing—the “hundreds of donors” in their network. Now they are reportedly pledging $300 to $400 million for the 2018 cycle. It’s a lot to the groups they fund, but to them, it’s peanuts.

If Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally gave $50 million to, the immigration reform group he founded, it would have been just .00089 of his $56 billion stash. (No one knows exactly how much he put in but that was the number the group claimed to have raised from its founding circle.) The $20 million that the other Facebook billionaire, Dustin Moskowitz, spent at the last minute to help with Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts? That’s one-six-seventy-fifth of his pile. The “three, four, five million a year” that Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer’s new USA Facts site costs to run? That’s a minute fraction of his $30 billion pile. No wonder he told the New York Times “I’m happy to fund the damn thing.”

Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas billionaire, spent about $82 million on politics in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets site. That’s two-tenths of one-percent of his $34.8 billion net worth. Even if you factor in the money he spends propping up newspapers in the US and Israel, it doesn’t change the magnitude of his cheap-skatery. Same with Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos—the $250 million he paid to buy the Washington Post was just one-three-hundred-thirtieth of his fortune.

Of all the billionaire big-spenders, only one of them (as far as I know) has really felt a pinch, and that’s environmentalist crusader Tom Steyer, who poured a reported $91 million into his political efforts in 2016. That’s five percent of his relatively paltry $1.6 billion hoard.

This is not an argument for loosening the already loose limits on direct political donations to candidates, parties and PACs. Our politics is already grossly tilted toward the wealthy. And almost all the time that the super-wealthy pay for political engagement, they do it to protect their privileges, not to expand everyone else’s. To be radically clear, if we want to change the game we have to get more money from ordinary people in (for an intriguing new way of doing that, check out Wisconsin Citizen Action’s new organizer cooperatives, where groups of 200-250 sign-up to co-fund and direct a full-time organizer accountable to them; more than $300,000 from 1400 donors has already been generated this way, paying for 6 organizers.)

But this is an argument for asking more of those well-intentioned titans than most of us usually ask. For example, the entire field of civic tech is vastly undercapitalized. One $100 million check would easily double the total currently going into companies or nonprofits that build platforms or tools aiming to empower ordinary people and make our democracy more responsive and accountable.

So, when we hear that someone is putting $500,000 towards trying to reinvent politics, our response shouldn’t be “How dare they?!” It should be, if the goal is to truly change politics, why aren’t they actually doing more? Because at the scale of today’s truly wealthy, most of them are just fooling around.