Koch Math

AKA: Fun with numbers.

There’s a fairly recent piece of folk wisdom that goes something like this: “What’s the difference between a million and a billion? A million seconds ago, it was just under twelve days ago. A billion seconds ago, it was 1979.

That’s a startling statistic all on its own, but the reason such an admittedly nerd-tastic fact has become enough of a minor viral phenomenon to make Snopes.com is because after a certain number of zeros, human understanding of numbers gets a bit problematic from a perspective standpoint. I think it’s important when throwing around large numbers like these to at least try keep in mind exactly what they mean – or at least what they could mean. Without a concrete example such as the one given above, however, what DO such large figures mean? And, equally importantly, why am I wasting my time thinking about such esoterica on a Wednesday afternoon?

Because I got to thinking about the influence of the Koch brothers. Everyone knows they’re billionaires, just like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates and (for fairness and balance’s sake) George Soros. In a money-trumps-all society such as ours, billionaires have to some extent become part of today’s celebrity firmament, as surely as movie stars or rock stars are. We all know the names of the very rich, even if we’ve never met them and their activities don’t touch our lives in any substantial way. So what does it mean when the activities of specific billionaires does begin to touch our lives?

Obviously, the answer to that question would be dependent upon a number of factors, among them, the follow-up question: “how active, exactly, is this particular billionaire?” Nobody knows exactly how much money the brothers Koch have spent to influence American politics over the years. That’s partly due to the fact that unless they’re donating directly to candidates or to certain candidate-endorsing political organizations, the Kochs aren’t required by law to disclose the extent of their financial backing of politically-oriented groups. In fact, after David Koch’s run for the US vice-Presidency in 1980 (under Presidential candidate Ed Clark on the libertarian party ticket), the Koch brothers appear to have realized that since their chief political asset is money, their best use of that asset is not by being personally out front as candidates or even as major backers of prominent national candidates, but as behind-the-scenes rainmakers for various conservative causes and organizations which are not technically partisan, though definitely ideologically conservative. It’s well known that the Koch brothers provided critical seed money as well as ongoing, sustaining contributions for a number of conservative or libertarian groups such as the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity and others (see previous Wikipedia link). And there’s no way to know how much money in total the Kochs donate annually to all the organizations they fund, because they fall outside the scope of federal election law.

So I started idly wondering: how much would it be possible for the Kochs to have spent? Of course, I don’t think they’ve spent anywhere near this amount, but referring back to the point that most people lack a real-world grasp of just how influential a given number of (dollars, seconds, etc.) truly is, it’s worth thinking about the kind of influence the Kochs COULD bring to bear, if they chose to do so. So, without further ado, a few numbers we, the unwashed public can know:

Forbes’ 2010 list of the richest people (2011 list is not yet available) puts the Koch brothers at an estimated wealth of 17.5 billion dollars each, or 35 billion dollars combined.

Courtesy of MSNBC’s archives, we learn that Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race in 2010 was decided by two million, one hundred thirty-three thousand, one hundred sixty-seven votes (2,133,167), of which the winner (Governor Wanker Walker) received 1,128,157 votes, and his Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, received 1,005,008.

So…what does the juxtaposition of these figures mean? Probably nothing in reality. While I’m sure the Koch brothers’ spending on the Wisconsin election wasn’t zero, I’m equally sure it wasn’t their entire wealth. But what kind of influence could two such people have, if they’ve got that kind of money and a will to win at any cost (literally)? Consider this:

That means, if Charles and David Koch had emptied their bank accounts and made themselves penniless in order to win the 2010 governor’s race for Scott Walker, they would have been able to do the following:

  • Buy every single Wisconsin voter – all 2,133,167 of them – who participated in the 2010 gubernatorial election a base-model Ford Focus sedan, OR
  • Buy every voter who made the difference between Governor Walker’s total votes and his opponent’s total votes – all 123,151 of themTWO nicely-equipped Chevrolet Corvette Coupes…each (two from David, two from Charles!), with an additional cash “incentive” of $76,000 per voter on top of the four Corvettes, OR
  • Buy every voter who made the difference between Governor Walker’s total votes and his opponent’s votes a median-priced house in the Madison area with a $100,000 cash bonus on top to furnish it.

That’s a lot of influencin’, friends.

Of course, that’s not how politically-minded billionaires spend their money to influence elections. What they often do is buy outside (527) group television attack ads. According to the formula found here, the Koch brothers would have been able to bombard the television airwaves of all three local network affiliates (CBS, ABC and NBC) of Madison, Wisconsin with pro-Walker (or anti-Barrett, or a mixture of both) thirty-second
advertisements 9,333,333 times, or approximately (at thirty seconds per commercial) just under 8.9 YEARS straight. That’s IF the television stations in Madison had been willing to pre-empt their entire programming lineup and air nothing but an uninterrupted nine-year pro-Walker infomercial, which they wouldn’t have been willing to do.

In reality then, and considering that advertising would probably be advisable in other Wisconsin cities besides Madison, like Eau Claire, Milwaukee and Stevens Point, for example, and given that the Koch brothers certainly wouldn’t want to spend themselves into the poor house to purchase television advertising time, it’s still pretty clear that they could spend many times less than their total wealth and still virtually blanket a state with television advertising for (or against) their preferred candidate. Or, they could hire a virtual army of sycophants to write blog posts and letters to the editor throughout the state. Or indeed do virtually anything else they wish that’s technically within the letter of the law – and, if we’re feeling cynical, likely much that’s not within the letter of the law, as well.

That’s the kind of power multiple billions of dollars from just two dedicated wingnuts can bring to bear on any election, anywhere in our country, at any time. This is what we’re up against.