We’ve had yet another in a short list of the most fiery contentious primary debates. The latest and most petulant and belligerent edition occurred in South Carolina. I’m not sure it helped anyone. It certainly didn’t help anyone clarify one of the thornier issues of the debate: does the fact that Sanders is a millionaire make him just as “bad” as Bloomberg who is a billionaire? Many people are saying so.
Here’s the short of it: No he’s not. That’s because it is difficult for people to comprehend such large numbers.
There’s even a field of study for it, numerical cognition. Numerical cognition is the scientific study of the basis of numbers and mathematics. It includes cognitive, developmental, and neurological psychology. What have they shown us? Understanding big numbers is hard, which is an extension of thinking is hard.
Understanding Big Numbers
It not only takes effort to understand big numbers, it takes imagination. You have to really try to do it. This is because we didn’t need to understand big numbers until quite recently in our evolutionary history. When I was a young man, a hundred dollars was a lot of money and a thousand dollars was easy street. I would’ve felt wealthy to have earned a thousand dollars a month. And, still it was difficult to conceptualize of such a large amount — okay, maybe I’m particularly innumerate — but at least I could lay out a thousand one dollar bills or 1,000 dots:
Bernie Sanders is a millionaire. Michael Bloomberg is a billionaire. Those are pretty close, right? I mean, it’s only a difference of one letter, right? They’re both rich, and rich is rich. Like Sen. Dirkson (R-Illinois) allegedly said way back in the 1960’s when the US deficit hovered around a billion, A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money, right? What does it matter?
Evolutionary Psychology & Understanding Big Numbers
Back in the hunter-gatherer days where the bulk of our evolution took place, we didn’t need to work with any numbers larger than 150 or so. It is estimated that when our communities become larger than 150, we have difficulty keeping up with individuals.
According to Sara Cordes assistant psychology at Boston College, in an article on lifehack, Our ability to keep track of numbers decreases as the numbers increase… the bigger a number gets, the noisier and fuzzier your estimate gets. So, how does that work?
A Thousand, a Million, and a Billion
Billion is a thousand times larger than a million, that is to say, multiply a million by a thousand, and you get a billion… you know, for the innumerate among us. Umm… did that help? Not really.
Okay, let’s add this little gem: A million is a thousand times bigger than a thousand. Hunh? Hunh? That’s got it, right. You’re saying holy cow that means a billion is a million times bigger than a thousand! That’s much bigger than a million! Okay, probably not. At least until I said it.
Even though a thousand is a number that we can all relate to, in part, because middle class salaries are still counted in the thousands, those differences remain indistinct. That’s because, as Cordes explains, As the numbers get larger you’re more inclined to think about it in relative terms. Framing is absolutely key. Let’s face it, our frame for a millionaire is rich. And, our frame for a billionaire is rich. And, rich is rich.
Bernie Sanders versus Michael Bloomberg
Once you’ve thought of Sanders as rich — He’s a millionaire! — and Bloomberg as rich — He’s a billionaire! — the two become equated in your head. They are the same. It is difficult to divorce them because of the difficulty of understanding big numbers. But consider the actual riches of the two men:
- $61.9 billion is Bloomberg’s net worth according to his Wikipedia page
- $2.5 million is Sanders’ net worth according to a Forbes article
- Bloomberg’s wealth is 25,000 times that of Sanders’ wealth.
Visualizing Big Numbers
To make that even clearer, watch this YouTube video on visualizing the differences between a thousand, million, billion, and trillion dollars.
I’ll break it down with some screenshots of key visual moments.
The first picture shows us the difference between yours and mine and our income and wealth versus Sanders. Seriously, we’re closing in on our retirement savings-investment goal, but we ain’t millionaires. We don’t own three homes like the Sanders do.
But, when we compare a stack of a million dollar bills to a billion, that thousand multiplier becomes much clearer. My god, look at the difference! Even if you doubled the million dollar stack to better represent Sanders’ 2.5 million dollars, you’d have to get 62 billion dollar stacks for Bloomberg’s.
If that isn’t clear enough, here’s a visualization of Bill Gates’ 84 billion dollars compared with mere millions. Sanders net worth is between the one million dollar stack and the five million dollar stack, but it doesn’t matter because the 1.4 billion dollar stack is dwarfed by Gates’ 84 billion dollar stack. So, both the one million and the 84 billion dollar stacks will do as proxies for Sanders and Bloomberg, right?
You cannot use intuition with large numbers. You are destined to fail because really big numbers like a million, a billion, and magnitude of difference lie beyond our perceptions. We just can’t do it.
Even when the numbers are present, we cannot use them. We tend to ignore them because thinking is hard, and we just don’t do hard thinking when we can get away with it.
So, next time someone is deriding Sanders as being one of the Richie McRichfaces, you can now set them straight. There is no moral equivalence between Sanders recently earned millions and Bloomberg’s self-sustaining billions.
The degree that Bloomberg has invested in the system that not only made him a billionaire, but that keeps those billions rolling in is much much greater than Sanders fledgling dalliance with the system of banking and high finance. The wealth of two men are not equivalent numerically, financially, or morally.