One Dollar = One Year

The median individual net worth in developed countries ~$10k; the richest people are worth up to ~$100bn. There are various ways to think about this fact:

  • You own $10,000. They own $100,000,000,000. It’s a lot more zeros.
  • Just 8 men own same wealth as half the world:
  • If dollars are equated to mass, they’re elephants, and you’re an Etruscan shrew:

These comparisons are suggestive, but not as much as I’d want them to be given the stakes. Mammals can get big, so why shouldn’t humans? One man = everybody else — isn’t that the whole idea of power? What else should we expect?

I find another analogy to be more revealing of the sheer enormity of the ratio 100,000,000,000/10,000.

Time travel

Equate one dollar with one year, and look to the past.

Ten thousand years ago [the median individual in a rich country], humans didn’t live in big cities and didn’t have books, or the ability to digest cow milk, but pretty much everything else was exactly the same as they are today. Our bodies and brains were the same. We lived around 70–80 years. We talked, played music, loved our kids and hated our kings. (In fact, life was probably more fun then than it is now.) As far as our evolutionary history is concerned, 10,000 years is essentially the same as zero.

By contrast, 100 billion years ago [Gates/Bezos-scale wealth], the universe didn’t exit. Even 20 billion years ago [lower-tier billionaires, WhatsApp’s founder], it didn’t. The action only started 13.8 billion years ago. At that point, lots of very slow things still had to happen before we humans had a chance to reflect upon economic inequality: hydrogen had to form from pure radiation; the first stars had to light up from collapsed hydrogen, burn for a couple billion years, and explode;

Star formation in the Eagle Nebula. By NASA, Jeff Hester, and Paul Scowen (Arizona State University)

new stars like our Sun had to form from the (now chemically enriched) interstellar gas; our own planet, the Earth, had to assemble from gas and debris around the Sun, cool down from oven-like temperatures and stop being bombed down by asteroids; oceans had to condense; biomolecules such as amino-acids and nucleic acids had to form, meet, protect themselves within membranes, and start the exceedingly unlikely chemical dance we call life; living cells had to evolve photosynthesis, a process so delicate it may rely on quantum coherence; the oxygen thus liberated had to fill the entire atmosphere; one (archeal) cell had to gobble up another (bacterial) cell and give rise to eukaryotes; eukaryotes, in turn, had to invent multicellularity, and cell differentiation, and immunity, and a body plan, and everything else you need to enjoy a meaningful life on this planet. (Try to imagine how much trial and error went into each one of these steps.) The Earth itself still had to go through massive temperature fluctuations, from being entirely covered in ice 650 million years ago to having palm trees beyond the Arctic circle 55 million years ago.

Just 100 million years ago [a successful internet entrepreneur], life still had not invented mammals or flowers. That’s right: every time you hear somebody made 100 million dollars in a venture, you’re allowed to think “dinosaurs, no mammals, no flowers”. Even just a million years ago [the amount stolen by a recent French presidential candidate in fake wages for his stay-at-home wife], our closest ancestors did not have the physiological ability to speak. They were many, many, many centuries away from controlling fire, let alone build pyramids or cross oceans.

It has been 13 million years [Donald Trump’s monthly earnings] since the common ancestors of humans and chimpanzees diverged. A long time ago?

Not by billionaire standards!

By Steve Jurvetson — Flickr: Bezos’ Iconic Laugh, CC BY 2.0

Originally published at



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