Originally published August 5, 2010 on Open Salon
[I gather some people didn't understand this post as originally written. I've added some text to make it more clear. The added text is in italics.]
How much money does it take to be rich? Whatever the number is, we know it ends in "illion" and begins with an M, B, Gaz, whatever. Those numbers can seem indiscriminately big. Today I'm going to give you a tool with which to discriminate, to give those numbers some proportion.
The tool I'll give you is time, because time is easy to relate to. The equation here is:
1 second = $1
1-Alligator. There went a buck. (If 1-Alligator is unfamiliar to you, it comes from Touch Football, where there typically is no offensive line, so defensive players count off five seconds before rushing. 1-Alligator, 2-Alligator, etc., or sometimes 1-Mississippi.)
I'm using time because time comes in so many different units: seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, millenia. We have a sense of how these units compare in scope to each other. With money, on the other hand, once we get to a dollar, all we can go on is the number itself. We know, for example, that a billion is a lot bigger than a million, but most of us don't have a feel for how much bigger. Using time instead of money, I can show you very graphically how much bigger.
A moderately expensive meal typically costs about a minute a person. (In other words, about $60. For our purposes, I'm substituting seconds for dollars on a one-to-one basis.) A moderately expensive car typically costs about half a day (because twelve hours equals 43,200 seconds). You might be able to find a basic suburban house in some American communities for a couple of days if you're lucky, though most cost more than that.
The first Illion, the one with the M, takes place at a little over eleven and a half days.
In earlier posts, including my first ever on OS, I've spoken about how an awful lot of America's money is concentrated in very few hands. According to Prof. G. William Domhoff of UC Davis, 85% of America's wealth is held by 20% of Americans. As we go up, wealth concentrates even more, with over 1/3 of America's wealth held by the top 1% of Americans(http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html).
What does that kind of concentration look like? From what I'm able to extrapolate from the Forbes data from 2009 and 2010, there are probably between four hundred and five hundred American billionaires at the moment. What does it take to break into that club?
Between thirty-one and thirty-two years, bare minimum.
What does the top of that club look like? It depends on the year, but both Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have cleared a millenium and a half before.
The absurdity of this concentration of wealth hasn't been lost on billionaires. There has just been a joint announcement by forty American billionaires that they all commit to giving at least half their wealth to charity either while they're still alive or immediately upon their deaths. This project was developed and spearheaded by Gates and Buffet.
Oh, and by the way, that trillion dollar deficit that George W. Bush managed to create from an inherited surplus? Over thirty-one thousand years. Closer to thirty-two thousand, actually.
1-Alligator, 2-Alligator, 3-Alligator....