The dollar amount in the title is 22.32 billion dollars. When I first saw this number in a pitch deck today, I was taken aback because I couldn’t instantly recognize its scale in the way that I can tell that $4,320 is four thousand three hundred twenty dollars or $12,763,000 is twelve million seven hundred sixty three thousand dollars. I had to count the digits and recognize the three hundred twenty million before realizing that twenty two represented the billions digits. I am simply not used to seeing numbers this big typed out in full digit form.
Part of the issue is when we write about billions, we’ll type something like $20 billion. In writing, $20 billion looks awfully similar to $20 million. They feel almost the same are in reality different only by a single letter. When you type them out in full digit form, $20,000,000,000 versus $20,000,000, they start to look and feel quite different. The words billion and million abstract away what becomes more tangible in numerical form.
Trillion is only two letters away from million, but six full orders of magnitude. Twenty trillion typed out fully is $20,000,000,000,000. That number is so long on this screen that my eyes can’t fully focus on the all of its numerals within reading distance. My observation is that the way that we casually speak and write about millions and billions abstracts away true scale of the difference between them. And I would be remiss to not say that I am indeed taken aback by this realization, though upon reflection I see that other recent experiences reinforce this gap in my own perception.
It is intuively hard to comprehend the billions of dollars scale. Recently, I made $200,000 in a single transaction, which to me is an absolutely huge amount of money to me, as it would also be to almost everyone in the world. I told a good friend who is an engineer about this, and he joked that I was 2% of the way to being a billionaire. I quickly corrected him saying that he was off by an order of magnitude and that it was actually 0.2%. I had a long way to go. But then, I realized that I was also wildly off, by yet another order of magnitude. $200,000, a huge amount of money, is actually a mere 0.02% of the way to one billion dollars. If you write that out in decimals — I’ll have to check this a couple times typing this — $200,000 is 0.0002 of a billion dollars. It is indeed a long way to a billion from here.
Now, I have never needed and never will need a billion dollars, barring hyperinflation, but it is still viscerally striking to realize just how far away from it I am. I know people who have a billion dollars, or much more than that, and they don’t seem too different from me. I suspect as humans, they’re not. But my friend’s error together with my own demonstrate how far even the intuitions of the mathematically inclined are off from the realities of wealth differences. This is wilder when you consider that the wealthiest people have fortunes two orders of magnitude greater than one billion dollars and that most people have many orders of magnitude less wealth than what I earned in one instance.
I write often on the subject of wealth disparities, so much that I feel a repetitive, but I continue to be surprised by being surprised by what I think I already understand. Mathematically, I have long understood the relationship between $200,000 and $1,000,000,000 and $22,320,000,000. Emotionally and viscerally, I am just barely beginning to grasp those tremendous deltas.
The world will soon have its first trillionaires. The spellchecker in Medium does not recognize trillionaire as a real word. I suppose they’re not real yet. I wonder how I’ll feel when they are.