Jeff Bezos and the unreality of money
The utter absurdity of the prospective world's first trillionaire
I would like to offer you a job. In this job you get paid a million dollars every time you listen to "Kung Fu Fighting" by Carl Douglas. That's the whole job. You can listen to it on YouTube or Spotify, on a CD, a cassette, LP: whatever. You can also do this job whenever you want, wherever you want, any time of day, any day of the week, absolutely up to you. It takes about three minutes and fifteen seconds to listen to Carl. If you devoted an hour a day to listening to Carl, you could make $18 million a day. If you did it like a regular nine to five, five-day-a-week job and gave yourself an hour-long lunch break, you'd make $129 million a day. I know what you're thinking: at that rate you would be as rich as Jeff Bezos soon.
The thing is, you wouldn't though, because it would take you three decades of hearing about Funky Billy Chan and Little Sammy Chung and the Big Boss at a million bucks a listen to earn a trillion dollars.
A trillion is how many dollars the founder and CEO of Amazon is expected to have by 2026 if his fortune keeps growing at the same rate. I sketch the above hypothetical not because I am under the impression that whatever Bezos does with his time is as undemanding as playing a novelty song on repeat but because I want to convey something that I think millions of Americans must be experiencing acutely these days: the unreality of money.
I say "unreality" deliberately. About 70 percent of Americans have less than a thousand dollars in savings. A million is a thousand thousands, which is why for centuries "millionaire" has been a synonym for "rich person." If you have a million dollars saved, you have as much as a thousand normal people. If you have a billion dollars lying around, congratulations, you have as much as a million of us schlubs. Just imagine: ten Big Houses lying next to each other, each of them with a sold-out Saturday Wolverines crowd, and your piggy bank is bigger than all of theirs put together. But even that is nothing in comparison with a trillion, which is to say a million millions, a billion thousands. A billion! There aren't even close to that many Americans. You could give more than a hundred dollars to every single person on the planet and still be worth billions.
These numbers are unreal. They are not human-scaled. They aren't even earth-scaled. The earth's circumference is less than 25,000 miles. The distance between the earth and the moon is 238,855 miles, which is less than were on an old farm truck I used to drive occasionally. Mars is only 140 million miles away. Hell, from here to Pluto it's a meager 4.67 billion miles. The most distant human object of which we are aware is the Voyager I spacecraft, which is 13 billion miles away.
The idea that there is even one person worth one dollar for every mile between here and the hunk of metal we launched as far as we could into space more than 40 years ago is crazy. There are actually 90 of them. Air travel costs roughly 11 cents per mile. At that rate Bezos could afford to travel to Mars more than once (66,666 times, in fact). He could make it halfway to Alpha Centauri, and perhaps further if one assumes he has been accumulating frequent flyer miles on all those Martian getaways. He could agree to pay four dollars per star and easily afford the entire Milky Way.
The point of all this bar-napkin math is not to provide some reasonable sense of scale. It is to demonstrate the impossibility of doing so. What does it mean to say that anyone is worth billions or even a hundred billion, much less a trillion, dollars? More important, why is it the case that sometimes figures like these are the unbelievable amounts they seem to be and other times they are simply headlines about emergency legislation — or casual projections of a single person's net worth?
Not long ago, as recently as the beginning of February in fact, we were being confidently assured by Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg that the United States could not afford to forgive a trillion dollars of outstanding student loan debt, much less expand Medicare to all Americans. In the last month we have spent 2 trillion dollars on emergency coronavirus aid alone. This will almost certainly not be the last such expenditure: indeed, unless we intend to impoverish two generations of Americans, it will likely represent only a small portion of the amount of money we will have to spend on economic relief in the coming months and years.
What does it mean to say that we as a country cannot afford something? Why is it that we cannot feed and clothe and house not just our own population but the world's? The answer cannot be money. Whether this is comforting or terrifying is an open question.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct a rounding error regarding the world's population.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.