Ahead of the 2020 Democratic primary (and attendant discussions around billionaires and/or taxation), memes about the math of billionaires circulated; among them was one claiming that if a person earned the reasonably strong salary of $240,000 a year it would still take more than 4,000 years of spending nothing at all for them to earn a billion dollars.
That meme was one in a series of posts popular on Facebook about the issue of billionaires. In sum, the posts seemed to endeavor to drive home the actual amount of a billion dollars (or several billion dollars) as a side discussion about the ethics of extreme wealth and taxation.
Earlier, a popular claim maintained that a million seconds ago was eleven and a half days ago, but a billion seconds prior was in 1988. That was true. Another was quite similar to the claim involving $240,000 a year and 4,167 years to get to a billion, and it too was true.
Yet another used a similar method of mathematical metaphor, claiming that if you made $5,000 a day all 365 days a year, it would take more than 500 years to “earn” a billion dollars — also true. Frequently, such memes were shared with a postscript holding that “no one earns a billion dollars.”
In the Facebook post referenced above, a user shared a screenshot from a Tumblr user (fandomsandfeminism), which was part of a larger conversation about, once again, whether or not anyone could reasonably earn a billion dollars:
Let’s say you have a badass job. A great job. You make $100 AN HOUR. You work 10 hours a day ($1000 A DAY), 5 days a week ($5000 a week!!!), every week ($20,000 A MONTH), thats $240,000 Every Year.
It would take you 4,167 years to make a billion dollars.
For context, u/fandomsandfeminism was responding to u/caosdth, who asked:
Why shouldn’t their be billionaires? That makes no sense.
At other points in the thread, separate users asked:
The problem with this is that it reduces the incentive to actually do fiscally well. What’s the point of starting a business if you can’t become wealthy?
Take away billionaires and you just put millions or possibly billions of people out of work.
Glad to know you hate the working class.
To which u/fandomsandfeminism originally replied:
Because the existence of billionaires is predicated on the exploitation of human labor and unsustainable environmental harm. That level of wealth hoarding is harmful to economies, as it reduces the amount of money in circulation. No one person, no family, could ever conceivably even SPEND a billion dollars anyway, and it is inherently immoral to accumulate wealth so narrowly while so much of the world lives in abject poverty.
Better then to create a wealth ceiling, a point at which all wealth over a certain point is taxed at or very near 100% to incentivize people to actually spend their money rather than hoard it, stimulating the economy and bettering the lives of far more people. Better even still to create and regulate economic systems that protect workers and the environment in a way that such extreme levels of wealth accumulation aren’t even feasible.
At the bottom of the screenshot, u/postilionstruckbylightning agreed with the above viewpoints, adding:
If you were making, for the sake of argument, $25 million a year, you could live a life of extreme luxury. Even then, it would take you forty years of spending none of that money to amass a single billion. There are multi-billionaires out there. No one needs that kind of money.
As was almost always the case with billionaire math memes, it involved a two-fold claim. One was arguably a matter of opinion: that even one billion dollars was a concentration of wealth so extreme it necessarily harmed the workers ostensibly exploited to produce it.
Another was purely mathematical, and it involved the actual size of a billion dollars versus a million dollars — figures of scale so unfamiliar to most people that they’d frequently say objections to wealth concentration were “nonsensical,” or that such discussion removed any incentive for any person to “do well” or “become wealthy.”
In this claim, the somewhat random baseline figure was $240,000 per year — a second figure, 4,167 years, was tacked to the first. This math was also straightforward, either in dividing one billion by $240,000 or multiplying $240,000 by 4,167.
$1,000,000 divided by $240,000 worked out to 4,166.7, or nearly 4,167 years. $240,000 multiplied by 4,167 totaled $1,000,080,000 (or one billion and eighty thousand dollars.)
It is, therefore, true that a person amassing $240,000 a year without spending anything wouldn’t tick over to a billion dollars for almost 4,167 years. An ancillary matter concerning whether billionaires ought to exist was a matter of ongoing political debate gaining in traction as the debates over 2020 political platforms continued.