A Billion Dollars Is So Much More Than You Think

It’s been a while since I posted on here, and mostly that’s because I haven’t had the headspace for anything longer than a Twitter rant (you can, of course, go follow me over at @schadenford for those). But with Howard Schulz potentially running for president in the most entitled way humanly imaginable, I wanted to share a few of my favourite descriptions of just how much money a billionaire has.

Most people think of a million dollars as a lot of money, and it is. With a million dollars, you can retire in most parts of America today, regardless of your age. If you invest only in index funds—nothing fancy, nothing high risk—you can live a comfortable, middle class life off the interest alone (which would, by the way, be a lot more than I’ve ever made in a year). A million dollars is what you save up if you put away roughly $1200 every month for thirty years and average a very healthy 5% rate of compound interest on every cent. That’s $14,400 that you earn but do not spend for thirty years, over and above the cost of: rent (or a mortgage if you’re lucky), food, utilities, fun, servicing student debt, paying off student debt, taking on more debt if you have kids, and so on. A million dollars is a lot of money.

The mistake, when people consider a billion dollars, is that they think in linear scales. They (roughly) think a billion is as much more than a million as a million is more than they have. And while that’s relatively true—if you’ve got $1000—it’s not the way we think about it. A billion is proportionately more than a million the way a million is proportionately more than a thousand. But the way your brain thinks about it is different. Honestly, you probably feel like a million dollars is a million more than you have, and a billion dollars is that much again. When you imagine a billion dollars, you’re probably imagining something a lot closer to two million dollars than a thousand million dollars.

So here to explain are some of my favourite thought exercises to understand just how much a billion dollars really is.

Exhibit A: A billion is so, so much more than a million. A million seconds is roughly twelve days. A billion seconds is 31.7 years. Imagine not having something you like for twelve days. Chocolate maybe. Your favourite ramen. Beer. Democracy. Now imagine the difference between that, and not having it for thirty one point seven years. Getting the picture?

Exhibit B: A billion dollars is more than you can spend in a lifetime. If you have a billion dollars, and you never earn a single cent of interest (ha!), you’ll still be able to spend $30,000 every single day of your life without running out of money. That’s just shy of the $31,000 and change that’s the US median yearly income every single day for ninety years.

Exhibit C: A billion dollars is more than enough to continue to be rich by every definition for every generation since Jesus of Nazareth purportedly walked the Earth. If you had a billion dollars on The Day Jesus Was Born™, and you spent $1350 every. single. day. since then, you would still have almost six million dollars today. Two thousand and nineteen years later. To save that up over thirty years you’d need to be putting away $86,400 every year (at 5% monthly compounded interest). You’d need to be saving almost three times the US median yearly income for thirty years just to save up as much pocket change as you’d have left after spending $1350 every day (over $490,000 a year!) for over two thousand years.

Exhibit D: It is literally impossible to save up a billion dollars. Remember how I said if you saved up $14,400 a year for thirty years you’d have a million dollars (if you manage 5% compound interest)? If you saved up $50,000 a year (without interest) you’d have a million after twenty years. At that rate it would only take you twenty thousand years to save up a billion dollars. For reference, that’s four times longer than all of recorded history. That’s over eighty three times longer than the US dollar has even EXISTED.

All of this is just to say the following: a billion dollars is an utterly unimaginable sum of money. At the rates at which we value labour, a human being cannot earn a billion dollars. They cannot accumulate a billion dollars through any amount of hard work, because if you get $60,000 a year for the very hard work of teaching, or $35,000 for the very hard work of collecting garbage 40 hours a week, or you get $60,000 for the very hard work of building the infrastructure we all use and live in, that’s the value of hard work, somewhere in that ballpark. You literally cannot work more or harder or better enough to earn the difference between that and a billion dollars through work, you can only extract it from the economy at the expense of undervalued labour.

The very existence of billionaires is proof positive that something is deeply broken in the way our society assigns value to things.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some work to do.

Signed: The Remixologist.

Appalling Work, Donald

Redo the work and bring it in tomorrow. It’ll be a day late, but it’ll be better than this.

Appalling work, Donald.

Signed: Feminine Fury

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Featured Image is of Gandalf in the famous “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” meme. Main Body Image is of Donald Trump’s recent letter to Kim Jong Un with MANY red corrections on it.

When Silence Is Supportive

Greetings, fellow male and male-adjacent (i.e. living with a greater or lesser amount of male privilege) westerners. This post is addressed to us, not to anyone else. Everyone is, of course, free to read it, but this is more about keeping our own house in order than anything else. It’s a post about a piece of advice.

This is not a revolutionary piece of advice. This is not “woke.” This is very explicitly old advice that I keep seeing us not taking, and often see myself not taking, which is why I’m bringing it up. Here’s the advice:

Give underprivileged voices space.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is shut up and listen.

Here’s what I mean.

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CUE SCENE

Woman 1, tweeting about her day: Ugh men are such trash.

Woman 2, sympathizing: God, I know, what now?

Woman 1: Dick pic. Again.

Woman 2: Don’t they know that it’s repulsive?

Man: [says literally anything]

Woman 1 and 2, simultaneously: *hit block button*

END SCENE

***

In this scene, there were two women having a conversation about a shared negative experience at the hands of a demographic (in this case, men) that you, a man, belong to. There is very little you can say in this instance that is helpful. You could #NotAllMen them, which is highly inadvisable for reasons that ought to be pretty clear to anyone who can use google at this point. You could also try to be supportive, something like “I’m so sorry that you had an awful experience (Again. At the hands of people like me.),” instead. This isn’t the worst response, but does insert yourself into a conversation where your presence isn’t required.

Instead, sometimes the best thing you can do is stay out of the way. That’s what I’d advise.

Is it hard when you want to be helpful and reassuring to sit on your hands and say nothing? Sure. It’s so tempting to insert yourself into a conversation with even the best of intentions. I screw up a lot, too, because I was raised to think that everyone wanted and/or needed to hear my opinion, and I’m still trying to undo the way that arises out of my own privilege. Also, Twitter flattens social hierarchies and makes you feel close to people who you’re not, and that’s a challenge, too.

And I get the irony, I do. I’m saying this in a blog post that I want people to read. I’ll probably tweet about it, too. On the other hand I made this space and set it out from the beginning of this post to not be up in someone else’s mentions about it.

What can you do, then? Well, you can listen and learn. You can make a separate conversation with other people about how you can change the cultural norms that have led to these women’s shared negative experience. You can boost their voices, too (with their permission), seeking out and sharing pieces written by those like them who have put their thoughts into words.

But all of this relies on, first, you backing away a little and asking yourself “is my input really required here?” and “will my input replace the voice of someone else?” and “would my silence be more beneficial than my speech in this instance?”

Because while sometimes silence is complicity—not speaking out against oppression, for instance—at other times it’s actively supportive.

Sometimes giving people the space to have a conversation without you is the best thing you can do. So think about it, I guess. And try to be good.

Signed: The Remixologist.

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Featured image of a cosplayer making the finger to lips “shh” gesture: Jennie Park, CC BY 2.0

Let’s Talk About “Tribalism”

Tribalism sucks. But also: calling it tribalism sucks.

 

I’m going to break a pretty major rule of writing right now, not just because it’s my blog and I can do as I like, but because in this case it’s the literal subject of the post: I’m going to start with a definition.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines tribalism in the following way:

tribalism, n. 

Pronunciation:  Brit. /trʌɪbəlɪz(ə)m/, /trʌɪbl̩ɪz(ə)m/, U.S. /traɪbəˌlɪzəm/

a. The condition of existing as a separate tribe or tribes; tribal system, organization, or relations.

b. Loyalty to a particular tribe or group of which one is a member.

It’s a word you hear a lot these days, and it’s almost entirely referring to meaning b. And among those references, it’s essentially always in relation to a “group of which one is a member” and almost never in relation to a “tribe.”

What they’re talking about is the increasing tendency, especially in America, to hold all your opinions not based on facts and evidence, but based on a sense of identity. It doesn’t matter, for instance, if you’re white and lower-middle-class and that you won’t see a dime of the trillion dollar tax cut, because Bob who’s been working at Wal-Mart for twenty years got a thousand dollars, and you like Bob because he’s a lot like you.

“Tribalism,” as we’re calling it, is a short-circuit in our brains. We automatically sort people—automatically, as in, without even thinking about it, not on purpose—into “in groups” and “out groups.” My people and your people.

This crappy part of our brains was probably useful once upon a time. If you’re a hunter-gatherer in a hostile landscape, banding together with a limited group of others to gather and defend resources is a great idea in an evolutionary system. It helps strike the balance between effort-sharing, profit distribution, and competition. If you work together, you do better—to a certain point. When the group gets too big, your share goes down because of various inefficiencies. Plus, of course, it’s pretty profitable to kill and steal from other groups, so everyone being in the same group limits whose lives you can destroy for your own gain. Humans are the particularly nasty result of, well, really it’s thermodynamics, but we can talk about that later. The point is, we (the descendants of the survivors of this system) used to find it really profitable to band together and lock others out.

And now that we all have to live together, and now that we don’t (openly, at least) accept that murdering others for what they have is an acceptable practice, it’s a piece of particularly destructive evolutionary baggage.

Economics mostly operates on the idea that people are, by and large, “rational actors” who do what’s in their own best interests, except that we don’t and a lot of that is because limited acts of altruism—only for the in group, you understand—are also, weirdly, advantageous. Add to that the modern problems of propaganda, bizarro political identity formation, and shifting demographics, and you get poor white male Christian Mike defending tooth and nail the need for tax breaks for billionaire white male Christian Ted at the expense of his own social safety net.

So: tribalism sucks.

But also: calling it tribalism sucks.

As someone who’s studied the Middle Ages more than most, I have a chip on my shoulder about the way scholars of earlier years created the myth of the “Dark Ages,” a period of unenlightened thinking between the totes amazeballs Roman Empire and the second coming of awesomesauce the Renaissance. I mean they literally called it the “rebirth,” as though all through the Middle Ages culture and thinking were dead. This is a lie. But part of how that lie operated was in the naming of things.

The Romans built “roads.” The insular people of the “Dark Ages” made “trackways.” I kid you not. Roman roads and “Anglo-Saxon” trackways. Nomenclature carries meaning with it, and it’s rarely innocent. In this case, it’s used to imply “primitivism,” a devaluation of a thing because it doesn’t fit a certain model of “modernity” or the then-prevailing (deeply-flawed) view of “progress.”

And that’s why I hate that we’re calling in-group/out-group dynamics “tribalism,” because we (and by we I mean western colonizers) have spent hundreds of years using the word “tribe” to denote that same kind of primitivism.

Look at the first line of the Wikipedia definition of “tribe”: “A tribe is viewed, developmentally or historically, as a social group existing outside of or before the development of states.” It’s the “developmentally” and “before” that’s the problem there. We’ve spent so long making a distinction between “civilized” people who live in “nations” and “primitive” people who live in “tribes.”

Now step back and look at what we’re doing with “tribalism.” We’re taking something decidedly negative, an evolutionary throwback in our brains that causes us to be irrational and nasty to one another, and we’re calling it by the name of a form of social organization that we’ve historically denigrated for being “primitive.”

Calling something as dangerous as in-group/out-group prejudice “tribalism,” to me, sounds pretty damn insulting to everyone whose social organization white colonizers have spent the last centuries calling “tribal” as a placeholder for “primitive.”

So here’s my suggestion: let’s stop. Don’t call it tribalism. Call it factionalism. Call it identitarianism maybe, or sectarianism. Call it in-group/out-group community formation. Call it literally anything but “tribalism.”

Let’s try to stop factionalism (or whatever we agree to call it), but let’s also try to stop calling it that, too.

Signed: The Remixologist

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Featured image: The definition of “tribalism” from the Oxford English Dictionary (Online). Source: OED.