Let’s stop using dollars to measure people’s money
A recent Forbes report illuminated yet more confirmation of the wealth gap. Not that there is a gap — that came about when the first person decided their seashell equated to wealth, committing their peers to instant poverty — but the acceleration of it. According to Forbes the number of billionaires went up ~30% this past year. Wow. And the rest of us thought 2020 was a tough year financially. But we’re not here to rehash that. Let’s instead talk about how we talk about money. A billionaire is someone whose wealth is more than USD $1 billion. Celebrity businessmen Bezos and Musk are worth 100x even that. But can anyone understand what it means?
Being a medium of exchange, money’s very purpose is a means to offer a shared comparison. The shared concept of value hastens our transactions. Dollars and consensus. Maybe now, as the height of today’s economic pyramids are based on a world nearing eight billion, we should update the tiny measuring stick of the US dollar, first employed when the world’s population was less than one.
Here’s the problem. We’ve exchanged paper ledgers for computers. Sufficient for particle physics, they will gladly store the comparatively meager ones and trailing zeros of finance from here on out. But that isn’t good enough. We should understand the financially pharonic power concentrated in a few. When headlines assert that Marissa Mayer leaves Yahoo with a final $260M or Adam Neumann is cast out of WeWork for $1.7B no one can comprehend these numbers.
In the US the 2019 Median Household Income was roughly $65,000. More or less all monies coming in for a full year. If I could count a dollar a second, I could almost count those in waking hours of a single day; to a millionaire’s worth in twelve. A billion raises brows (I’ll let you do the math). Seconds become demonstrably inadequate. Now we’re thinking, but for emotional resonance one may as well define parsecs.
The only yardstick we have more ubiquitous than the dollar is time. Take one’s lifetime, for instance. Setting aside inflation and side concerns, if one considers a household making $65K/year multiplied by a 45 year career that’s just shy of $3M. Allow me to then coin one standard Lifetime Earning unit.
Alternatively we employ a unit which remains grand because it’s more time than almost any of us have here: the century. The annual US median extended 100 years becomes a Salary Century. This helps one think of hypothetical human generations of income at the current rate —a son or daughter, and their son or daughter, and so on every 25 years or so — to equate to figures printed so effortlessly in the newspaper.
Without appropriate metrics, attempting to comprehend the millions of dollars shuffled about by people who influence your world is as futile as planaria trying to understand a cube. When one hears of a buying an island, we don’t much understand the numbers but it’s tangible; when someone purchases an entire geographical noun, we understand viscerally. Other transactions are too subtle. When I hear of big money in politics I consider the who-was-involved relationship (someone extended money to influence someone else) but citing the specific dollars resonates as blandly as when a colleague lent me $20 when I forgot my wallet at lunch.
So let’s try our new units. Incomprehensibly large contributions (e.g. $10M, $22M) to super-PACs might read, “In April, Timothy Mellon handed over almost three-and-a-half times the average person’s lifetime income to America First Action (3.4 LE),” or “Dustin Moskovitz contributed monies equivalent of nearly seventeen generations of income spanning three-and-a-half centuries in the final weeks of the election (3.5 SC).”
It’s jarring, right? It should be. When an average person must think in terms of lifetime multiples of oneself, peers, or neighbors just to compare their capacity against a day’s actions of another citizen, people should give it some thought. The right language helps.