Politics and Culture in the Comic Zone

Daniel Rigney

Daniel Rigney
New Texas, USA
August 01
free-range writer
In this writing workshop and citizen's blog I'm exploring various short forms, often from a satiric angle. My interests include politics, culture and the human comedy; old and new media; social theory and urban life; the commercialization, corporatization and tabloidization of everything; sustainability; Unitarianism (UU); coffee; and writing (sorry, I mean providing content). Turtle stamp is from Tandy Leather. Interested in republishing a piece? Contact drigney3@gmail.com.


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JUNE 18, 2012 7:00PM

The Billgate: New Unit of Currency?

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By Daniel Rigney

“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

Twentieth-century Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen is often  quoted or misquoted as having made this quip about the size of the federal budget. The same could be said of massive concentrations of private wealth, or of mind-boggling sums of money in general, whether public or private.

Let’s face it. A billion dollars isn’t what it used to be. With inflation, and with burgeoning  wealth at the high end of the social totem pole since the Reagan 80s, a billion dollars just doesn't mean what it once did, even though a billion dollars remains, as always, a thousandth of a trillion, and a million a thousandth of a billion. That would make a million a millionth of a trillion, I think.

I’m getting dizzy just thinking about it. A billion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real people overwhelmed by unimaginably large numbers.

I submit we need a new unit (or superunit) of world currency to help us comprehend megalarge financial numbers in the news. I propose that we name this new denomination after Bill Gates, marking the fact that, for good or ill, Gates was the first person in modern history to cross the 100-billion personal wealth line in millennial dollars, breaking the green tape in 1999.

We might call our new superunit the Billgate. If there’s ever a 100-billion dollar bill, his picture will probably be on it.

Today the Gates fortune has fallen back from its peak to a little over a half-Billgate, according to Forbes. Carlos Slim of Mexico has surpassed Gates with a net worth of $69 billion. The Koch brothers, whose combined wealth is only $50 billion, are relatively less successful.

Mr. Gates’ wealth, since his reversal of fortune after 1999, is now the mere equivalent of the combined wealth of 61,000 one-millionaires, enough millionaires to fill every seat in Yankee Stadium if we put an extra 10,000 folding chairs on the field.

The Kochs, meanwhile, seem to have improved their financial position in recent years -- in part, perhaps, through their increasing citizen participation in our democratic political system.

But we’re not here to covet or criticize. We’re here to understand more clearly the vastness of public and private wealth with the help of the Billgate unit, a measure of currency that’s a hundred times bigger than a billion but only a tenth the size of a trillion. We need an image that helps us think about vast sums of money on a more human scale, giving us a finer sense of proportion and perspective.

Hence the Billgate, convenient shorthand for one hundred billion dollars, or $100,000,000,000, or a tenth of a trillion.

To illustrate: I recently learned that Greek voters have elected a government that will accept a bailout in the equivalent of $300 billion from German bankers. That would be just 3 Billgates. Doesn’t sound like so much to me. Just three Bills? What’s all the fuss?

To illustrate further, if the total GDP in the United States is ~$15 trillion, that’s $150 Billgates. Smaller number, easier to grasp and keep in mind. Think of this year’s US GDP as a small auditorium with a Gates in every home theater seat.

One last example. According to OMB figures, the U.S. federal deficit last year, following years of Bush tax cuts and the most severe recession since the Great Depression, was about  $1.4 trillion, or 14 Billgates. Compare this with the Clinton era of the late 1990’s, when tax rates were higher and a prosperous economy generated healthy federal tax revenues. In Clinton’s last years there were no deficits at all. In fact there was a federal surplus, though not a mind-boggling one. 

By converting billions and trillions into Billgates, our ordinary minds can fit unimaginably large financial numbers into a more imaginable and human frame, giving us a better sense of proportion and perspective on everything from Greek debt to great wealth to GDP.

A Billgate here, a Billgate there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real wealth.


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What a timely discussion!
Very interestingly thought through.
(and wittily posited!)
Thank you, PW, and good luck to Coloradans in "the fire this time." The Gates post is leading toward a follow-up pointing out that the Koch brothers, at $25 billion apiece, are together the equivalent of $50,000 one-millionaires. I want to address our habit of thinking that a billion dollars is just "one step up" from a million. It's not. It's a thousand steps up, and 50,000 millions is 50,000 steps up. Most of us, myself included, have trouble comprehending this simple mathematical truth.

P.S. I loved your "my real father" piece and wish I'd known him too.
Good suggestion, tho I think a more appropriate denomination would be the futilla, equal to the same 100 billion. The futilla derives it's name from the New Feudalism, or what I prefer to call it Futilism, that is an economic system in which striving is no longer seen as a way toward financial independence, since the fruits of labor are all harvested by robber barons like the Kochs, who make even Romney look like a piker.

How interesting that so many robber barons these days are beneficiaries of daddy's who set them up for life. That includes not only the Kochs and Romney, but the Sons (and daughters) of Sam Walton, Steve Forbes, Grover Norquist and Donald Trump, tho rumor has it Dandy Donald has pissed most of his fortune away on gold leaf, arm-pieces and hair-pieces.
Thanks, Tom, for this thought. Futilism. I like it. That seems to be where we're headed -- a kind of post-industrial caste system in which advantage begets further advantage and disadvantage further disadvantage (i.e., what sociologists call a "Matthew effect" from a scripture in Mt. Mk. and Luke that to those who have, more will be given.
Glad to see your link to the Dirksen Center. They have some neat stuff on their website.