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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!

Captain Bill and the Innovation Bullet Train

After my last post discussing the incredible power and social good that technologies like Facebook and Twitter are generating today, I got to thinking about how interesting it is that Microsoft hasn’t been a participant in this most recent round of platform-level innovation. In fact, in a way that was oddly similar to Microsoft’s reluctance to embrace the power of the internet, until Bill Gate’s watershed memo, when the whole company pivoted to bear-hug the Internet “tidal wave” (should have more accurately said tsunami…), Microsoft was also reluctant to embrace or leverage Twitter or Facebook. Perhaps another instance of “Not Invented Here Syndrome” that the company seems to suffer from? Anyway, then I got to thinking about the previous technology revolution, that Microsoft dominated, desktop computing.

Bill launching Windows 95

Bill launching Windows 95

Although my children will never know the world before the age of easy, accessible computers, the Windows operating system was practically a single-product global revolution that changed the world and created vast wealth for Bill and many others, as Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat (shudder) are doing today for their young (mostly male, *sigh*) leaders.

So that line of thought brought me to another question- Bill is in a unique position, he has been the most prominent and influential figure in a technology revolution that brought amazing change to how our global citizenry communicates and works, and created tremendous wealth in the system and for himself. Then in 2000, rather than continuing to drive the engine of innovation and product development that he created- he boarded a new train: direct community investment.

Let’s unpack why this is such an interesting change. What Microsoft did through the 80’s and 90’s was ground-breaking and transformative and without a doubt, incredibly good from a social welfare perspective. The creation and expansion of affordable computing power leveled the playing field for invention, learning, development, communication, and made it possible for nearly *everyone* to participate and use computers for a myriad of purposes. There would be no Zuckerberg without Gates.

I’ll sidebar on Bill for a minute- I have never had an opportunity to meet him, but feel like

Bill's reading list is ALWAYS worth reading!

Bill’s reading list is ALWAYS worth reading!

I have a good measure of him based on his actions and writings over the years. (I am a devotee of his reading list!) He is a deeply thoughtful, highly intelligent, driven man who is passionate and committed to doing something meaningful with the power that his wealth has afforded him. I can only imagine the hours of reflection and thought that went into stepping away from Microsoft to lead the Foundation with Melinda.

One question that must have come up constantly as he wrestled with his departure from the company is, “Will I do more good via direct investment through the Foundation than I would do as the leader of Microsoft?”

It’s not an easy question to answer, though history tells us that he decided in favor of the Foundation, for which I applaud him and hope that he will serve as a model to other young leaders who also amass great fortunes.

I am a huge fan of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and one of the things that stands out to me is the recognition that even with the incredible financial resources at its disposal, the organization doesn’t try to directly assault any of the problems that fall within its charter (perhaps with the exception of eradicating Polio)- and indeed alleviating global poverty, improving global health and education are too vast to be simply solved through the liberal application of money. The underlying conditions and systems that cause and perpetuate these realities are too complex to be solved through money alone.

Rather, the Foundation has developed the concept of multiple focused, concentrated investments being made or seeded, with the aim of continuing to fund and grow those that take root and flourish. This model has roots in Biology and can be seen even at play in the free market system. The Foundation has great material on its mission and values- I highly recommend reading its Annual Reports.

I have little doubt that the Foundation’s impact and legacy, and thus Bill & Melinda’s, will be one of the highlights of the 21st Century, just as the computing revolution ushered us out of the 20th Century on a high note.

We are on a bullet train. Remember to take in the view!

We are on a bullet train. Remember to take in the view!

So what’s the moral of this little journey? In part, it’s a reflection on the rapidly changing world that we live in. When observed from a distant vantage point, innovation is like a bullet train and we are its lucky passengers, watching the world whiz by, a view that we can become numb to, if we don’t take the time to really *look* at the transformation happening before our very eyes. And yes, there are some very special people who participate in driving and fueling that train. Bill Gates is undoubtedly one of the best and most remarkable among them.

Above all- I’d love to get Bill’s thoughts on this question, anyone have his number?

As always, I appreciate you reading and sharing my blog! It’s fun to sit alone and ruminate on these questions, but I far prefer conversation- so please share your comments and thoughts!

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