In a panel discussion in January, intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates asked Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez the following question: “Do we live in a moral world that allows for billionaires? Is that a moral outcome?"
Ocasio-Cortez answered without hesitation: “No, it’s not.” The congresswoman elaborated, explaining, “I do think that a system that allows billionaires to exist, when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health, is wrong.” Ocasio-Cortez has lent her voice to a cause championed by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who have spent years fighting billionaires. Like Sanders and Warren, Ocasio-Cortez and her team have spoken about the issue in blunt terms — one of Ocasio-Cortez’s policy advisors, Dan Riffle, uses the Twitter handle “Every Billionaire is a Policy Failure.”
The moment with Coates sparked a wave of pushback from centrists and conservatives. Fox Business Network host Maria Bartiromo called the comments “quite naive.” The Hoover Institution, Stanford University’s economic think-tank, ran a snarky article arguing that free-market solutions prevent ringworm, not public health initiatives. Fox News host Sean Hannity told his viewers that Ocasio-Cortez had “called the American dream immoral.”
Casting aspersions on the accumulation of wealth is un-American — so says the myth that is the American dream. In America, anyone can get rich if they work hard, or so the story goes. The perpetuation of this myth depends on the existence of a class of fabulously wealthy people — scrolling through Forbes’ list of billionaires offers everyday Americans an opportunity to fantasize that someday, they too will launch themselves out of their own lives and into the company of America’s most powerful.
I suspect, though, that part of our broad acceptance of billionaires stems not from the immanent American myth but from normal, human misunderstanding of the size and scale of the figures being discussed. As the conversation around billionaires has ramped up, it has become clear that the discourse is plague by a critical misunderstanding — no one knows how big a billion dollars is. This misunderstanding matters, because simply understanding the size of a billion dollars constitutes a strong argument for the immorality of billionaires.
A billion is an unfathomably large amount of anything. Calling billionaires “fabulously wealth” is a dramatic understatement. A billion is a thousand millions, but that’s a comprehensible way of phrasing it and thus undervalues the incomprehensible magnitude of a billion. Look at it this way: One million seconds is 12 days, but one billion seconds is 31 years. One million feet is 3/4 the distance from Washington, D.C. to New York City, but one billion feet is 3/4 the distance from Washington, D.C. to the moon. Pundits and politicians alike consistently fail to emphasize the immensity of a billion. Bernie Sanders and CNBC alike are guilty of referring to “millionaires and billionaires” in the same breath — as the above comparisons show, that’s a staggering false equivalency. The United States has 11 million millionaires and 540 billionaires. We have a poor intuitive sense of a billion because a billion is too big of a number to understand, even with analogy.
Once we begin to wrap our heads around the magnitude of a billion dollars, the answer to Coates’ question becomes apparent — the existence of billionaires is not a morally acceptable outcome.
The following graph allows for a fast, emotional understanding of the difference between a billionaire and the average household in America. According to the 2017 Census, the median American household income that year was $61,372. The following chart compares that amount of money to the net worth of a person with assets worth $1,000,000,000.
The chart shows that possessing a billion dollars is immoral, especially within the contest of American capitalism. A billion dollars towers over the average American’s wealth. A person with $1,000,000,000 commands 16,294 times the amount of wealth of a normal household. Our capitalistic ethos suggests that hard work will be rewarded accordingly — but it is not possible to work 16,294 times as hard as another person. It is not possible to be 16,294 times as smart as another person. Controlling a billion dollars shows that the system is immoral because it shows the lie at the heart of that system: equal work does not result in equal reward.
In a more concrete sense, a system that allows for billionaires is immoral because a billion dollars dwarfs the amount of money required to fix America’s most pressing problems. For example, according to The Guardian, it would cost $55,000,000 to fix the contaminated water pipes in Flint, Michigan. Despite loud, public promises from billionaires such as Elon Musk, the pipes in Flint remain poisonous. The graph below compares 55 million dollars to one billion dollars.
That graph makes the immorality of a billion plain as day. America’s wealthiest people are sitting on quantities of money that dwarf the quantities required to fix major problems in this country. I do not mean to suggest that Musk cutting a check to fix the pipes would solve the problem with billionaires. Structural changes must occur — taxes must be raised for the wealthiest Americans. The point here is simply to show the quantities being discussed, because understanding those quantities is the first step towards re-apportioning that money.
Billionaires’ pocket change makes even the country’s most complicated problems seem paltry. According to endhomelessness.org, America has 554,000 homeless people. Supportive housing for a homeless person costs an average of $12,800 per year. That means that it would cost a little more than seven billion dollars to end homelessness for a year. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos currently holds the title of America’s richest man, with a net worth of around $135 billion, per Forbes. The following chart compares the two amounts:
Jeff Bezos controls enough wealth to end homelessness for a year and still be the richest man in the world by a 35 billion dollar margin.
Pulling terms like “billion” out of the abstract and placing them in concrete, side-by-side comparisons with issues that we already understand shows the immorality of the existence of billionaires. Knowing the implications of a billion dollars means knowing the amount of good that a billion dollars could do. The existence of billionaires prevents that money from doing that good. Understanding the size of a billion leads to the inevitable conclusion that modern billionaires have amassed a quantity of wealth that no person can possibly justify controlling. Helping people understand the size of a billion is perhaps the simplest and most compelling argument for the abolition of billionaires.