Fractal Inequality and Politics
posted by Frank Pasquale
According to the Fed, the the net worth of the typical American household was $77,300 in 2010. The new vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, had a net worth of $3,207,000 in 2010—about 40 times that of the median household. The man who picked Ryan has about 80 times more wealth than him, with a net worth of $250,000,000. And one of the Romney/Ryan ticket’s greatest supporters, David Koch, has about $25,000,000,000, about 100 times Romney’s fortune. David’s brother and Sheldon Adelson are about that wealthy, too, and very politically active.
If this example sounds terribly partisan to you, just substitute in your favorite left wing billionaire and Obama/Biden, or consider the fabulous lives of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair after they retired from office. Romney/Ryan is more interesting here because of the fractal inequality on display.
Numbers like these take a little time to sink in (and perhaps they never do, given our cognitive limitations). They need to be explored and illuminated. What does it mean that, say, David Koch could double each half of the GOP ticket’s net worth by giving Romney one-hundredth of his fortune, or giving Ryan one five-thousandth of his fortune? Consider how readily you might give 1/5,000th of what you own to a charity, or use it to pay for a magazine subscription, or a dinner out. The median household might not think twice about using its $15 (about .0002 * $77,000) to buy a pizza.
What does it mean for politics when leading figures of either party can leave office and expect lucrative sinecures from tycoons or corporations? Who really is in charge?