The human brain is not great at conceptualizing very large numbers. We know what they mean in the abstract, but it takes a considerable amount of effort to wrap one's mind around the idea of a billion or a trillion of something. Personally, I think this is especially true with long periods of time, which in turn explains why so many people have a difficult time grasping things like evolution or climate change that happen on scales of millions of years. Sure, we read or hear "three million years ago" and think, gosh, that's a long time. But it doesn't properly register just how long a time that is, or how far away Alpha Centauri is, or how many people died during World War II.

This is also true with money. Everyone understands that a millionaire is rich and a billionaire is really rich. When candidates propose, as every Republican presidential candidate has done this year, cutting taxes on people worth that much the average person thinks of the wealthy as being in the same frame of reference as him- or herself. They're not. If we change the units, it's much easier to see how unlike us they really are.

According to the Federal Reserve, the median household income in the United States in 2014 was $54,462. Let's call that $54,500. Now let's compare that to a million and a billion dollars. Finally, let's compare it to the Koch Brothers' combined net worth of $41.1 Billion (call it $41 even).

54,500 seconds is equal to 15 hours. That's the median household's annual income in units of time. A million seconds is 11 days and 12 hours. Quite a difference, isn't it?

A billion seconds is 31 years. Actually, 31.6 years if you want to be specific.

The Koch Brothers' net worth of $41 billion in seconds is 1,296 years.

So when we say "the wealthy" we are not, as most people conceive of it, talking about people doing five, ten, even a hundred times better than us. We are talking about people who don't even exist on the same scale as us.

Despite the fact that the Kochs are more worried about taxes on investments than on income, keep in mind that of the GOP front-runners, Donald Trump wants to lower their tax burden from 39% to 25%. Cruz has proposed a 10% flat tax. Rubio wants to keep the top bracket at 35% but reduce the dividend and capital gains taxes to zero. Because obviously people in that universe of wealth deserve a break compared to someone who actually works for their income.

The point has been beaten to death since the late 1990s that the Republican Party and its affiliated mouthpieces have worked wonders by convincing poor white people to vote against their own economic interests, or to believe in the fantasy of trickle-down benefits to come if only our Job Creators are treated well enough. I wonder how many of those same voters would feel if they could grasp effectively the size of the fortunes of the people they march to the polls to support. They probably envision us all in the same boat. We're not.

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37 Responses to “DRAWN TO SCALE”

  1. Well mostly Says:

    Different worlds indeed. An absolute marvel that ordinary folks buy the conservative line. Same language but barely the same species as the Kocks.
    I did something like the time line with marbles years back. I bring my little brown bag of marbles to the game, maybe a couple hundred. Billionaires drive up with hundreds of semi-trucks full of theirs. I forget the math but it was really inconceivable. Figured I'd screwed up the calculation-nope. It's not the calculation that's screwed up.

  2. Jestbill Says:

    Welllll….you really shouldn't exagerate.
    Y'know, there are TWO Kochs so they have to split that $41B. And that's wealth, not income so ya got some apples on one hand…

    They probably only make around 5% on their money so their income is only around a $1B apiece. Totally different story!

    Without the exageration, it amounts to comparing the difference in lifespan of a mayfly to that of, say, a horse.

  3. jacq Says:

    People like the Kochs pay tax attorneys, not taxes. Changing the high tax rate is going to have negligible effect on them, because they almost certainly materialize income via some Cayman Islands tax shelter that keeps it from being taxed at all.

  4. mago Says:

    Breaking my no comment rule after recent egg on face.

    It was brought to my attention at a young age that it's almost impossible to hold two divergent thoughts at the same time, though Walt Whitman might have disagreed.

    It was further pointed out to me around university age that one cannot conceive of numbers reaching a thousand, let alone millions or billions.

    Lordy I've tried, but those numbers and representative power elude my feeble grasp. However, I can count to ten.

  5. marc Says:

    You might be interested in this nice chart that also tries to help make sense of the scale of money.

  6. Xynzee Says:

    Conceivable scale of reference? Easy.
    A$1mil = 83% of the median 3BR house price in Sydney's Inner-West (~1.2mil plus).
    A$700k = 2BR unit in the same area.

    So effectively the Kocks would own entire suburbs*.

    Hope that helps.

    *Isn't there a third brother who keeps out of the limelight, read: doesn't try to f^€£ the rest of us through political shenanigans?

  7. Xynzee Says:

    As a thought pointed out by Jestbill, is half the problem for the average punter that people like the Kocks play by a different set of rules?

    We pay tax on income, these guys pay (supposedly) taxes on gains and derivatives and other things we do not understand let alone know exist? So saying we'll have a 10% income tax rate sounds good until we realise it won't touch these people's real source of "income".

  8. Kirlian Crochet Says:

    I realize that wealth vs. income = apples vs. oranges, but I always like to ask my republican friends if they would rather have 60% of a million dollars or 75% of fifty grand. They usually guess right.

  9. Katydid Says:

    I learned in some class or other that most people can easily grasp, "One, two, three, many, lots", then it's all a blur. The late author Terry Practchett also uses this concept for his troll characters' counting.

    I also think people on the lower end of the income scale can't even appreciate how much money a millionaire has. I remember feeling like I won the lottery to have an extra $20 in my pocket at the end of the month and daydreaming of all the possibilities–I could go see a movie, or order a pizza, or even put gas in the car! The world was my oyster! In contrast and a couple of decades later, my youngest kid got a free ride to a private high school where the kids routinely went to Spain for the summer vacation and skiing in the Alps for Christmas. The Kochs are so far above even that. They can buy islands for summer break.

    Tax breaks sound wonderful to people who are searching the couch cushions to see if they can afford to rent a movie. They don't realize the breaks are not for them, but for the people buying private islands.

  10. huntly Says:

    Was thinking along the lines of Xynzee: median home price in the US is about 350000. Combined, the Koch brothers could buy 117142.85 houses.

    Has anyone ever tried to calculate how much any given Billionaire would actually make if he/she tried to cash out? Could the KB's really come away with 41 billion if they wanted to just have a pile of cash and nothing else?

  11. David Says:

    It's not just more. It's different. The concerns of people with median-income finances focus on paying the bills month-to-month, and maybe saving for the kid's college or their own retirement. The concerns of the Koch brothers are focussed on buying influence. The difference isn't qualitative, measured by ratios. The difference is qualitative. They lead a vastly different life.

  12. Hazy Davy Says:

    This is useful, but there's another part of the GOP argument to contend with, too:

    The super-wealthy are endowed with merit, because of their wealth.

    How do we know that trickle-down economics work? Don't trust the manipulated lies of liberal statistics to get your answer. Know this: if the wealthy weren't smarter and more capable than us, and if they didn't know what's best, they wouldn't be wealthy.

    [I'd thought that years of Kardashians and Trumps would disabuse people of this notion, but the Trump candidacy shows just how many people "buy on emotion and justify with fact"]

    I still remember when my father was on hospice, dying of cancer. And he got what amounted to a form letter of condolence from the Senate Pro Tem (or some title I'd never heard of, before). And he said to me, wide-eyed "do you know how powerful he is?" But I didn't have the acerbity to answer "powerful enough to write a personal letter, if he really cared?"

    Even if folks were able to comprehend these numbers, lots would *still* be convinced that the super wealthy deserve tax cuts, regardless of their tax level, today. Why? Because they are worthy of reward, and because then they'll be freer to apply their wisdom to our lives…the same wisdom that resulted in their astronomical wealth.

  13. doug Says:

    Republican Party and its affiliated mouthpieces have worked wonders by convincing poor white people to vote against their own economic interests,

    THIS over and over again, time after time. The poorest counties around me are rock ribbed republicans, mostly due to race/immigrant/gay baiting. Hate is a powerful weapon that some(even 'religious' folks) use to advance their cause.

  14. John Danley Says:

    To paraphrase the great J.B.S. Haldane: Not only do these monkeys have more bananas than we suppose; these monkeys have more bananas than we *can* suppose.

  15. Heisenberg Says:

    @jestbll: Even if you measure by household wealth instead of income, the concept remains the same. Median household wealth (net worth) was $68,800 in 2011. So updating Ed's analogy where $1 = 1 second, that's 19 hours for the median household. In other words, pretty much the same.

    See: http://www.census.gov/people/wealth/files/Wealth%20distribution%202000%20to%202011.pdf (page 7)

  16. H.M.S. Blankenship Says:

    One of the arguments in favor of taxing middle income people was always that there were a lot of them; raising rates on high-income people would not bring in as much money (it was said) because there were a lot more in the middle brackets. I wonder if that is still valid in these days of the shrinking middle class & larger & larger numbers of millionaires & billionaires.

  17. Mo Says:

    Then there's the penny-wise-pound-foolish error….

    Rounding $54,462 to $54,500 costs a mere $38 to get a couple more easier-to-compute-with zeros.
    Whereas rounding 41.1 billion to 41 billion costs $100,000,000. That a hundred million dollars. 100 briefcases full of a million dollars each. Or 1,834.86 people earning that rounded median income of $54,500. Call it 1835.

  18. Bill Says:

    Can we have another thread wherein Ed uses his professional and academic knowledge to tell us all how stupid it is to think that Trump might be the next POTUS?

    In other words, I've been saying that this was Trump's race to lose since last summer and I'm not happy about beating all of the expert predictions on this topic.

    At this point, how is he not going to be the GOP nominee, and if he's the nominee, how is he not going to destroy Hillary or Bernie in the general? "My opponent is a huge liar! She's lying right now! She sells out for what I spend on lunch!" Or, "My opponent thinks communism is how you get ahead, but look at him! He's not even worth one million dollars! Whereas I'm a capitalist success story!"

  19. Major Kong Says:

    I've often wondered what $40 billion will buy you that $20 billion won't.

    I think at some point it just becomes a matter of having more than the other guy.

  20. ronzie Says:

    I hate those miniaturized XKCD charts/comics! I don't have a billboard sized monitor connected to my computer! And the nitpicking details he includes; this guy is the poster child for ADHD!

  21. Racer X Says:

    I think Major Kong is correct. Seems to me there should be a word for people wanting more money just for money’s sake. Oh yeah that’s right there is: greed. Seems to me I saw that word on a list with 6 other vices Christians and other people of faith are expected to avoid. How does the religious right explain that?

  22. Glenn Says:

    This is the visualization I like best: http://www.lcurve.org/

    Somewhat related, the same is true for people at the very small end of measurement. Conceiving of a nanometer is exceptionally difficult, even though the thing I am writing this on requires the manipulation of matter at that scale and in a way that makes this device, effectively, disposable. Crazy town.

  23. Phil Koop Says:

    Following up on Heisenberg's point, median wealth varies strongly by age (tending to rise until over 70), with peak median wealth in the 65-69 bracket being around 200,000. However, about 3/4 of that is home equity. The Kochs have about a million times more wealth than the median citizen, give or take a factor of 2.

    Well, a million is too big a number to grasp. But specific examples do help put it in perspective. So a billionaire pays $20 million for a painting of doubtful aesthetic quality? That's a lot! But it's the equivalent of $20 for you (without even taking into account the convexity of utility.) Like buying a poster of a bad movie as a joke or something.

  24. Skipper Says:

    When I was teaching — state college, blue-collar area — I would ask my students how much they would have to make annually to be considered "very wealthy" (this was in the '90s). The answer usually came in between $150,00 to $200,000. It was my sad duty to inform them that the truly wealthy could spend that on a weekend of golf.

    I live in an area with a lot of posh people and posh places. (I am not posh.) Earlier this month, I saw a lot of limos from the local limo company running around. I wasn't aware of anything going on and when I ran into a guy from the limo company, I asked him what was happening.

    He told me that someone at Bighorn — the super luxury country club where vacation homes run up to $40 or $50 million — was having a Superbowl Party. The limos were to shuttle the guests from their private jets up to the party.

    But why do they succeed at gulling the booboisie? John Steinbeck says: Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

  25. charluckles Says:

    I come from a middle class family. The first time I was ever truly wined and dined and solicited for money my wife inherited was a real eye opener for me. This wasn't even in the same universe as the Koch Brothers wealth, but I was and am still gobsmacked at the way capital is treated as compared to labor.

  26. Robert Says:

    I remember a line from a novel – a merchant character explained that, for him, it wasn't about having a lot of money. He already had more than he could realistically spend. He enjoyed the game; the money was a way of keeping score.

    Ed, you make a good point. For someone like the Koches, the move from US$40 billion to 45 or 50 would have no real impact on how they actually live their lives. They just want to run up the score.

  27. Mo Says:

    And, of course, it's not just the Kochs…

    We've all read Dark Money by now, yes?

  28. bb in GA Says:

    I use a simple story to help people imagine numbers up to 1 million.

    Turner Field in Atlanta has about a 50,000 person capacity. Most everybody can imagine that stadium (or one close to you) full of people.

    Now, imagine 20 Turner Fields at capacity and viola – you got your million.

    Now a billion would be 20,000 Turner Fields and we're lost again :-(


  29. duquesne_pdx Says:

    (Caveat: I'm aware of the difference between wealth and income, but it's illustrative.)

    Per Heisenberg above, the average income breaks down to $0.009/sec. So just about a penny/second (for 2,080 hours worked in a year). What's a penny buy nowadays?

    $1B is worth $133.54/sec. A decent meal for two (with drinks and tip) at an Outback or similar. Maybe a movie afterward. No snacks at the movie, though.

    The Kochs are worth $5488.78. In 10 seconds, they buy a pretty nice car. In 1 minute they buy your $300k house.

  30. Katydid Says:

    Thanks, BB; that's a great way to envision a million!

  31. Jono Says:

    This is the kind of stuff to cause the French Royalty to say, "the peasants are revolting!", and Marie Antoinette said, "Yes, they are." There are many more of us and not that many of them.

  32. Mo Says:

    Jono – check out YouTube (I don't want to risk embedding the video) for

    "The people are revolting!"
    "You said it! They stink on ice."

  33. Kaleberg Says:

    The sheer immensity is part of the attraction. A lot of people, particularly conservatives, but many liberals as well, worship power. (There were a lot of those on the left who admired and extolled Stalin and Mao, so it isn't just a right wing thing.) George Orwell wrote a wonderful essay about this type of admiration. He called it bully worship. His essay was "Raffles and Miss Blandish". 'Raffles' was a book about a gentleman jewel thief that epitomized a certain conservative attitude. 'No Orchids for Miss Blandish' was an American style gangland story written by an Englishman which became a bestseller because it "helped to console people for the boredom of being bombed". (I haven't read it. Judging by his description it was rather disgusting.)

    Many people worship power. Sensible savages on an isolated island might worship the local volcano. Kids will worship powerful figures like Superman. Grownups will worship people like Trump or the Koch brothers. It is the sheer disproportion of their power that is the very attraction. When Orwell ended 1984 with his image of a boot smashing a human face, he left out the part about who was yanking the boot down by the bootstraps.


  34. Alan C Says:

    Never mind being in the same boat, we're not even all in the same kind of boat. If I'm in a rowboat, the Kochs and company are in super yachts.

  35. sluggo Says:

    First of all, I swear Eddie Murphy was screaming 'It was the Kochs, it was the Kochs' as Dan Aykroyd was choking him in "Trading Places".

    Secondly, somebody check my math. Those guys can spend a dollar a second for the next 1300 years before they run out of money?

    "A billion seconds is 31 years. Actually, 31.6 years if you want to be specific.The Koch Brothers' net worth of $41 billion in seconds is 1,296 years."

    Is that correct?

  36. democommie Says:

    i once had a young man tell me that one of the principles of a company that had gone public had received a bit less than a half billion for his share. He said the guy had a "compound" in Rye Harbor, NH (which would pretty much BE Rye Harbor–big it ain't!) and a boat that was so big that the tenders were Donzi's.

    I told him that I was unimpressed. What would impress me, I said, was hearing that he had given half of his windfall to charity or set up a foundation to aid those less fortunate. I'm pretty sure that the young man was also unimpressed with my comment.

  37. Beleck Says:

    greed, our new God. replaced Christ years ago. keep "feeding the lies" for some 40 to 50 years about how to get "over". lol and that worked!! still does.

    the Great American Scam of the last 50 years is working fine for the Rich, for us not so much. something like 15 factories left the country every day for the 1st 10 years/since 2000. those are some real numbers, too.

    we won't have living wages but we will have Trump or Clinton to "focus" our lives until we become one of those Millionaires, like the Koch's, Adelson, Singer, et al..

    or " a great fortune is usually the result of a great crime.