A November 2019 Facebook screenshot of a tweet claiming that people typically “don’t understand how much a billion is,” is one of many similar viral social media posts about the relative worth of a billion dollars, and discourse around whether anyone could potentially earn or whether anyone should be allowed to possess such a large amount of money.
The tweet was originally sent on November 3 2019:
Above a tweet, the user wrote:
i don’t think people fully understand how much 1 billion is. if your salary was 100k w no tax it would take you 10 years to become a millionaire but 10,000 years to reach a billion. it is unethical for one person to be hoarding this much money when others cannot eat.
As noted, the tweet was actually a response retweet of another tweet holdingt that the “idea that anyone can become a billionaire” was “the most successful brainwashing” the user had ever seen:
On the first tweet regarding the purported portion of a billion dollars, one response suggested that it was not the fault of billionaires that others were not as successful. Another commenter essentially asserted that no one can actually earn a billion dollars:
It literally is their fault tho. If you earned $1k per day & spent $0 it would take you ~2800 years to earn $1bil. The way billionaires “earn” their money is exploiting their workers, tax loopholes, and subsidies by the state. It is impossible to work hard enough to earn that.
Several similar posts became virally popular in 2019. One used time to illustrate the vast difference between a million and a billion, using seconds and claiming that a million seconds was eleven days and a billion seconds was 31.5 years (which is true.) Another suggested that if you were collecting $5000 a day (again, without paying taxes), it would take more than 500 years to accrue a billion dollars (also true.) Yet another said a $98 million donation from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was, contrasted with his net worth, akin to a $45 donation from a person earning $50,000 annually (again, true.)
Although the details changed from iteration to iteration, the underlying claim was roughly and repeatedly held that no imaginable amount of hard work or innovation could by itself allow a person to accrue a billion dollars (or in Bezos’ case, more than $100 billion.) Additional subtext implied that if some people or entities were amassing one or more billion dollars, the value of that wealth was being drained from elsewhere — such as chronically under-compensated workers.
As is typically the case with such million/billion comparisons, the ethical aspects were, perhaps a matter of opinion. But as in the tweet above, millionaire-to-billionaire comparisons also usually involved a bit of checkable math with respect to proportionate sums of money and wealth.
The second claim in the tweet was that it was “impossible” to work hard enough to earn a billion dollars or more. The second was that “if your salary was 100k w no tax it would take you 10 years to become a millionaire but 10,000 years to reach a billion,” a fairly easy calculation.
If our putative $100,000 wage earner was not taxed and didn’t spend any money at all during their decade of wealth building, it is true that at the end of ten years, they would have socked away $1 million. $100,000 per year multiplied by ten years equaled $1,000,000.
By the same metric and using static numbers, our person making $100,000 would indeed have to wait an additional 10,000 years to graduate from millionaire to billionaire. That’s because $1,000,000,000 (one billion) divided by $100,000 (per year) was 10,000 (years), and $1,000,000,000 divided by a 10,000 years worked out to $100,000 per year.
However, if our $100,000 annual earner got a major raise and clocked $500,000 per year (half a million dollars), they would only have to keep at it for 2,000 years to reach a billion. One billion dollars broke down to 2,000 half millions, or $500,000. It’s not a giant leap of math to conclude that should they earn $1,000,000 a year, it would “only” take a thousand years to become a billionaire.
We noted above that billionaire proportions often used Amazon chief executive officer Jeff Bezos as an example of a billionaire. Bezos’ net worth dropped from slightly more than $110 billion on December 4 2019 to $108 billion on December 5 2019, based on Forbes real-time net worth tracker and a recent fact-check of ours. For ease of calculation, we will here apply the same ratios to $100b of Bezos’ net worth, which would leave him with between $8 and $10 billion as of early December 2019.
In order for our $100,000 earner to make $100,000,000,000, they’d have to work for a million years. But if we raise their annual income to $500,000 (or half a million dollars), they would be able to hit a billion in a mere 200,000 years.
To recap, the tweet claimed “if your salary was 100k w no tax it would take you 10 years to become a millionaire but 10,000 years to reach a billion,” which is true. But those figures don’t apply to multi-billionaires like Bezos. To earn $100,000,000,000 of Bezos’ $108 to $110 billion, you’d have to make $100,000 a million times — or half a million dollars 200,000 times.