Understanding Big Numbers

Election 2020: Is Bernie Sanders an Evil Oligarch in Sheep’s Clothing?


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.

Numerical Cognition

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.

Visualize Large Numbers Thousand Million
Comparing a Thousand and a Million

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.

Understanding Large Numbers Million Billion Visualize
Comparing a Million and a Billion

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?

Visualize Large Numbers Sanders Net Worth Bloomberg
Comparing Sanders’ Net Worth and Bloomberg’s Net Worth

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.

Image Attribution

The feature image was found using a Creative Commons search. It was found on Imgur. I believe it is licensed for reuse with modifications.

The video was found on YouTube. It was posted by eirtaza.

10 comments

    1. Howdy Bob!

      Haha! Indeed! Roman Numerals may have been more useful than we realized. They certainly would’ve kept pace with the numbers they represented! When in high school, I took a programming class — 1977, if memory serves — and one of our assignments was to write a program that did basic math, addition and subtraction, of Roman Numerals. I shall never forget the struggle. We were writing in Basic. The fun kind of misery.

      Huzzah!
      Jack

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Howdy Bob!

        It certainly did get me very familiar with Basic. It was nothing compared with programming the four basic math functions using only addition in Assembly. At least, we didn’t have to use machine language. I guess. Have you done much programming?

        Huzzah!
        Jack

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Not much at all. I played some with Java code early on and that Apple coding thing whose name escapes me right now. My dad did a lot of programming way back when his department at Sinclair Oil research got an IBM 650. And, early in my Linux use, I had to learn to do some things in terminal mode with Bash.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Howdy Bob!
        I was a computer science major for three years in the late 70’s and early 80’s. That is until I had the epiphany that I would have to work 50+ hours a week as a programmer and that it would be pure misery.

        If your dad was programming at Sinclair Oil, he was probably using some of those very early — late 1950’s, early 60’s, right? — so he was using Assembly or Fortran or both. Man, those were the days.

        Huzzah!
        Jack

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Dad got tapped to learn the programming because he was a chemist good at math. That was in the 50s. One of the things I remember about the IBM 650 is that part of the programming involved physically setting up jumpers to the circuits, and all the instructions and data were on punch cards. That machine used vacuum tubes and helped heat the building in the winter.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Haha! I remember programming one of the first desk top computers. To boot it up, you had to manually move switches to set the registers in the right sequence. I also used punch cards, but that was for mass input convenience since it was a degree program. And, computers are hot. Good thing, too, or else I might not ever get off the toilet… oh, have I shared too much?

        Jack

        Liked by 1 person

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