Just How Big Is A Billion?

In the United States, there is a growing chorus calling for us to grapple with the widening wealth gap between our citizens (okay, okay- at least among Liberals there is). This is a discussion that deeply divides us. How do we balance the conflicting principles that are deeply woven into the American psyche? There is one thread which believes our system “rewards hard work” and that each individual “reaps what he sows,” plain and simple.

The other thread, introduced by the Declaration of Independence with the famous words, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” is that all people, regardless of the circumstances into which they were born, deserve some basic level of security and opportunity. The belief that in America, *anyone* can make it, that because our society is free, open, and has a thriving capital market- the playing field is level and open to all-comers.

Of course, we have ample evidence that this is simply not true. At birth many factors can immediately handicap one’s chances at realizing the American Dream, the socio-economic status of your family being among the most influential. Warren Buffet has a brilliant metaphor that he uses to illustrate this, that I encourage you to watch, Ovarian Lottery Theory.

When trying to parse through a discussion of wealth distribution, we quickly dive into questions of taxes and social safety nets and that’s when a “talk to the hand” gesture comes out on both sides. Usually you can’t get further than two or three sentences in before the conversation is doomed. I contend that there is one surprising factor that contributes to this and it’s a question of semantics.

We skip an important step in the discussion because of a limitation of our language. When we talk about money, taxes, the rich, the poor, and who “deserves” what, we use words to represent numbers and that makes them sound deceptively and falsely similar. One thousand. One million. One billion. Ten billion. These phrases have the same number of syllables. Million and billion are, in fact, separated by only one letter! It’s like they are practically the same, right?! Wrong.

Words have failed us in an important way.

Sure, you can say "one billion". But do you know what it means?

Sure, you can say “one billion”. But do you know what it means?

For the millions of Americans (you’ll have to forgive my use of the word) who are never going to get close to having a net worth of a million dollars, the substitution of a “b” for an “m” may seem as inconsequential as the decision to “super-size” a meal at McDonalds. It can’t be that much more- and even if you “know” it’s a lot more, it is actually so much larger that it takes true effort to truly understand it.

The difference is so large that words don’t do it justice. The American people need to understand it and care about it. YOU should care about it the next time you head to the ballot box. It is a fundamental part of this conversation.

A billion looks like this numerically: 1,000,000,000. Yes- it has three more zeroes than a million, but that still underplays the magnitude of the difference. My daughter has a cute children’s book called “How Big Is A Million?” that follows the adventures of an inquisitive penguin as he progressively makes his way up from 10 fishes, to 100 penguins, to a 1,000 snowflakes, finally culminating with a 4.5’ x 3’ pullout poster that has a million “stars” (tiny, tiny dots) on it. Now, that poster is 13.5 sq. ft. The dots are so tiny that from a distance of just three feet away, they are essentially invisible to the naked eye.

This cute book helps kids understand how big one million is.

This cute book helps kids understand how big one million is.

This bath towel sized poster has a million "stars" on it.

This bath towel sized poster has a million “stars” on it.

These tiny "stars" are so small you can't see them an arm's length away. Turns out a million is a lot!

These tiny “stars” are so small you can’t see them an arm’s length away. Turns out a million is a lot!

So, what’s the difference between one million and one billion?

The poster that comes with my daughter’s book is about the size of over-sized bath towel.  If we scaled that poster up to represent a billion stars, it would be larger than 3 NBA size basketball courts.

basketball court

It takes more than 3 NBA courts to scale up the poster of one millions stars to one billion stars.

Take a moment to let that sink in. Imagine standing on a basketball court, with that bath-towel sized poster at your feet with a million tiny stars on it. Now look up and imagine that poster blanketing three basketball courts and the first few rows of seats.

Do I have your attention yet?

Putting it another way, an Olympic sized swimming pool holds 660,000 gallons of water. So you’d need just under two Olympic sized swimming pools to hold a million gallons. But to hold a billion gallons of water? We’re going to need to go bigger- a lot bigger.

One of the most recognizable large bodies of water in the United States is the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool- it holds about 6,750,000 gallons of water and is nearly a third of mile long. Now, imagine 148 Reflecting Pools lined up, row upon row, and you are getting an idea of the size difference between one million and one billion.

The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool is nearly a third of a mile long.

The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool is nearly a third of a mile long.

And we have only been talking about one billion dollars, thus far. Bill Gates has an estimated net worth of $82,000,000,000. Now, we are talking about a reflecting pool the size of the city of Denver.

The median net worth of a family in the United States is less than $100,000- which won’t even get you out of the shallow end.

You can see why our language is failing us in conveying the difference adequately.

An aerial view of Denver, one of the largest cities (land mass) in the US.

An aerial view of Denver, one of the largest cities (land mass) in the US.

A few months back, I was chatting with a friend about estate taxes (me being strongly in favor of them) and she talked proudly about how her grandfather is a self-made millionaire who had worked incredibly hard and started with nothing.

His story is amazing and to be admired. I vehemently agree that he should enjoy the fruits of his labor and that his family should as well. So, let’s raise the estate tax cap to 50 or 100 million dollars to ensure that happens. But even at that level, it doesn’t get us past the free throw line on our imaginary basketball court.

In fact, the gap between her grandfather in the top 1% and the billionaires in the top 0.1% is widening faster than upper, middle, and lower class Americans. Numerically speaking, we are all in the same very large, slowly sinking boat. Even millionaires can’t keep up.

Today, there are 492 billionaires in the United States and the concentration of wealth in their hands is staggering. I have tried to give you some sense of that, but see here if you want to read more, or here if you are like your information in video form.

I am in no way suggesting that we should create a system that discourages the creation of wealth, but I do hope that by illustrating the nearly unimaginable magnitude of concentrated wealth, it opens the door to a conversation about ensuring that the wealth gap doesn’t remain so large that it defies description. That is our reality today.

Many billionaires are speaking out about this issue- Bill Gates and Warren Buffett being among the most eloquent and dedicated to illuminating the topic of wealth distribution and income inequality. Bill recently published a wonderful review of Thomas Picketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I’ll confess I’m only about 30% through this dense tome myself and with all the reviews out there, that may be as far as I get.

This startling wealth inequity is also why Bill & Melinda Gates, along with Warren Buffet, created The Giving Pledge– which is a promise (non-binding, mind you) that these incomprehensibly wealthy families will give over half of their money away via philanthropy or charitable causes. I love it. It’s noble, it’s brave, it’s incredibly generous. And it’s also still not enough.

As brilliant, enlightened, and worthy as a few of the billionaires in our society may be, they shouldn’t be able to influence so much of our future. That’s why we established a democracy in the first place. They are not fundamentally better people. Most will readily acknowledge that they have been incredibly lucky. Recently, firebrand activist and billionaire Nick Hanauer published a wonderfully brash article titled The Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats highlighting this very issue.

As Americans, we have to get our act together and start acting and voting in our best interests. This is not a question of red or blue, but of black and white, as in cold, hard facts. Facts are showing us, by every measure, that we are the most unequal we have been in the history of our nation.

I won’t pretend to have all the answers, or even a fraction of them, for how to resolve this issue. I know it will take the hard work of many people- but I hope that by helping illuminate the incredible size of a billion, such a deceptively small word, it advances the case for the need to do it.

Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your ideas and thoughts on this issue and I’d love for you to share my blog!

About jenlocati

JENNIE LOCATI started her blog, WYS Words as a way to share her experiences as a professional woman, wife, mother, and irrepressible “do-gooder”. Her diverse life experiences have taken her to Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer, the trading floors of Wall Street, to PATH, and most recently back to Microsoft, where she works in product development. Jennie shares her many misadventures, occasional insights, and unique perspectives in a voice that is self-deprecating, honest, and authentic. Read more at www.wyswords.com

Posted on November 10, 2014, in Big Ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I would have no problem with the growth of billionaires in America if we had truly universal health care (i.e., not a single person worrying about how to “afford” to be healthy or alive), universal free teritiary education (freedom of mind and opportunity), and a culture that recognized that great wealth and power come with great responsibility. It’s not the billions that are annoying; it’s the selfishness and the childish belief that anyone can be “self made” or “deserves” their riches that is annoying, if not infuriating. Luck is the biggest factor in any fortune. The second biggest factor is unscrupulousness and/or past crime. Then greed/ambition. Then maybe hard work. Then ability (mental ability, social ability, etc.).

    In many ways, the actual amount of millions and billions doesn’t really matter, even to those fortunate enough to have the zeroes in their financial statements. What really matters, what has always mattered, is the status, power, self regard, etc. that come with the wealth. The ability to feel superior, morally better. It’s an animal need and instinct. So the problem of the super wealthy is not that they have so much more, but whether they care enough about the rest of their society. IF they do, great. If they don’t, fine, as long as they don’t think money and wealth are the same as respect and dignity. The pernicious belief for the “love the rich” faction is that money and wealth and income become proxies for human worth. THerefore, the poor do not “deserve” food stamps, the sick do not “deserve” free health care because they haven’t “worked” for it. It’s precisely that selfish, childish logic that is so infuriating about those who tend to defend or rationalize (explain away) the wealth gap.

    On more practical levels, the other problem with concentrated wealth is that it tends to retard social and economic development. Why change when things are so good for us and ours? In fact, I can use my wealth to preserve my status, to get favorable regulations written, to lobby for selective regulatory oversight, etc. It’s the age old dynamic of wealth begetting wealth, and the free-market equivalent of monopolistic or oligopolistic behavior. Corporations are people. Money equals speech. Such beliefs and behavior kill nascent technologies and in an increasingly competitive world, those technologies will find other homes first. So, many of the super rich are in fact doing great harm to the long term success of America. Capital doesn’t care whether the next great idea comes from China or Brazil or Nigeria, as long as my money is making money. It’s unrestrained capitalism. It’s selfishness, pure and simple.

    Speaking of long term, it’s the very definition of aristocracy when wealth and power become synonymous with heredity. I don’t have a problem with billionaires. I do have a problem with aristocracy. Unfortunately, most Americans do not yet have a problem with aristocracy. Europeans have more experience with it, so it’s no surprise they tend to have more skepticism when it comes to concentrated wealth. Russia is of course an exception, but Russia is only geographically European; it’s not culturally post-war modern European and is still basically a country of peasants and landlords.

    Anyway, the biggest challenge in America is not the wealth of the top 0.1 or 0.01 percent, but whether the top 20% of Americans who comprise the professional class will continue to identify and align with and support the top .1 and .01 percent, and at what point the bottom 50% will say enough is enough. Myth and religion are very powerful forces, so I’m not saying there will be revolution any time soon because America is in many ways still a land of opportunity. But I susppect that when it comes, the revolution will surprise us, even though it will have been lurking in the background all along. Or, we can be smart and start building those ties between the classes that hold it all together. But that would be labeled by the ignorant or the politically opportunistic as “socialism.”


  2. Okay, your last sentence compels me to take your bait. Some comments:

    1. Why are you obsessed with *money* as a measure of equality? Many factors (health, fame, influence, age, friendships) matter more. A simple example: Valerie Jarrett (assistant to Pres. Obama) probably has a net worth less than yours. Should it bother anyone?

    2. Why do you only consider equality *within* the United States? The poorest American is still in the top 10% of worldwide income, so shouldn’t you be much more concerned about the rest of the world?

    3. The top 1% is constantly changing. Look closely at today’s top 1% and tell us which ones don’t deserve it. I think it’s *wonderful* that Zuckerberg is now in the top 1%. Bill Gates wasn’t a member 30 years ago and he (and his family) probably won’t be there 30 years from now. Maybe the overall *share* of the 1% is growing, but who cares as long as they create fabulous new things?

    4. Most Americans spend at least one year of their lives in a household that’s part of the top 10%. Similarly, nearly everyone spends a few years at the bottom, statistically speaking (how much income does a Harvard student earn while in college?). Is there really as much inequality as the raw statistics appear to show?

    5. Technology is a great leveler and it benefits everyone. The richest man on earth 10 years ago couldn’t afford an iPhone 6, but you can! Antibiotics, easy airline travel, the Internet…not to mention whatever new inventions will be coming a few years from now. Again, is money really the only thing that matters?

    6. My experience is that, once you get to know people, you’ll see that *everyone* wants to make America a better place, and we all genuinely think we know how to do that. It’s not just the “liberals”.

    7. You have a wonderful blog! Please keep writing!


    • Jan- thanks so much for reading and replying! Since you conveniently numbered your questions- I’ll answer them in the same way. 🙂

      1. Although money IS the topic of this particular blog, I wholeheartedly agree it’s a lousy indicator of happiness- but only *after* it hits a certain threshold. As you can see from my recent blog calling for the creation of an “Equal Society Corps” (I’ve already gotten lots of feedback that it’s a lousy name!), I think a lot about the other factors that measure or confer equality. https://wyswords.com/2014/11/02/calling-for-the-peace-corps-next-act-the-equal-society-corps/
      2. Again, I think a lot about equality across the spectrum and beyond the borders of the United States. With this particular post, I was truly trying to draw attention more to the almost incalculable concentration of wealth and how it can distort otherwise well-functioning processes, like democracy.
      3. I’d actually disagree to some degree with this statement. 60% of the Forbes 400 list are on it through inherited wealth and although the occasional playboy blows through it, families are usually quite thoughtful about passing great wealth down among generations. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. But, I am an “everything in moderation” person and think it is important that we don’t leave behind 40% of our population that has negative net worth. The challenges of climbing up from the lowest rungs of the population are devastatingly difficult.
      4. Great point and it’s probably impossible to create a model that measures net worth accurately. That being said- I’d direct us to the statistics that I cited in my “Equal Society Corps” blog that shows that the US is ranked #17 in the Economist’s “Where to be born list.”
      5. Yes, yes, yes! It is certainly the best time in the history of the universe to be a human being- as a species, we are ROCKING, right now! Given that I have been a Peace Corps Volunteer and work for a nonprofit focused on bringing those technological and medical advances to the world, I totally agree with this. Wealth is the topic of this blog post, but I do take a much more holistic view to human well-being in general.
      6. Yes, again. I have often said that one of the best things about our system of government is how slowly it moves- so that it’s size is actually a moderator of change and helps blunt the influence that any one party or ideology can have on the country. That being said, even the Economist pointed out this week that the wealth concentration in the US is at an all-time peak (equaling 1929) and that’s something we all need to pay attention to. http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2014/11/daily-chart-2
      7. Thanks so much- I love writing and thinking about big ideas. This is saving my husband and co-workers from me boring them to death with these discussions! (Okay, they do still hear about it, but at least they can say, “Let me read your blog first!”

      Thanks again! Jennie


      • re: “60% of the Forbes 400 list are on it through inherited wealth”, please see: http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbespr/2014/09/29/forbes-announces-its-33rd-annual-forbes-400-ranking-of-the-richest-americans/. In fact, only 15% inherited their wealth. At least two thirds are “self-made” — exactly what we like about America. Please look at the new entrants: anybody on there who didn’t deserve it?

        Also note that the attrition rate from the Forbes 400 is about 6%/year. To stay on that list year-to-year, you need to work at it — and most of them do. Larry/Sergei/Gates/etc are working as many hours a week as you or me.

        Personally, I think this rise in wealth is explained by globalization plus technology. Government policy (e.g. taxes, unionization, etc) has little to do with it. Which brings me to my followup question: even assuming that wealth inequality is as big a problem as you say it is, what would you do about it that wouldn’t risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

        Bonus question: why does it matter, I mean, to you or me personally? If you hadn’t read about it in the Economist, would you even know or care that a few people out there have billions and you don’t?


  3. Reblogged this on gemma D. alexander and commented:
    I was going to post something about Iceland Airwaves today, but as often happens, my friend Jennie has given me something a little more meaningful to think about. Plus, she managed to do so with a Princess Bride reference and introduced me to the term Ovarian Lottery.


  1. Pingback: Imagining Inequality | Shaulablog

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