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.