This past Thursday, MSNBC’s Brian Williams and his guest, Mara Gay of the New York Times, discussed this tweet by writer Mekita Rivas:
“It’s an incredible way of putting it,” Williams says.
Yeah, incredible in the true sense of the word.
“It’s true. It’s disturbing,” Gay agrees.
When I first saw this, I asked my seventh grade son, “Hey, Corban, if you had 500 million dollars, and there are 330 million people in America, how much money could you give to each person?” He thought for about six seconds before coming up with pretty close to the correct answer: “About a dollar and a third.”
Yes, if you divide $500 million evenly among 327 million Americans, each of us would get $1.53.
As Corban pointed out once I read him the tweet, everybody could get a million dollars only if there were a total of 500 Americans.
Yet this obvious fact was completely missed, not only by the original tweeter (who writes professionally for well-known publications), but by a New York Times editorial board member, an MSNBC host, and who knows how many others at MSNBC this segment had to get through: graphic designers, writers, producers, etc.
And they weren’t just a little wrong. They were off by 6 orders of magnitude.
(To their credit, all three have admitted their mistake, and the two women have made self-deprecating jokes on Twitter, laughing at themselves.)
But how was a screwup this colossal ever possible in the first place? I know some people are just bad at math—I’m one of them. But even my twelve-year-old kid (who hates math) could manage this one. And these aren’t stupid people. They didn’t get to where they are in their careers by being stupid.
I submit it’s because there’s something deeper than math at work here. It’s their political worldview: that billionaires control bottomless wells of money that could fix everything for everyone if we would just elect politicians with the guts to tax and redistribute it. We could fund all the social welfare programs they desire if billionaires were only forced to pay their fair share. They honestly believe this. And why shouldn’t they? Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and AOC tell them it’s true.
Let me explain how breathtakingly wrong they are.
First, as David French points out, for Michael Bloomberg (or anyone) to give every American a million dollars, they’d need $327 trillion (in cash, not net worth.) That’s about 16 times the entire gross domestic product of the United States. There’s no one that rich in the entire world. In fact, if you combine the current net worth of every billionaire on the planet, you’d still have to multiply that total 37.6 times in order to give every American a million bucks. Heck, $327 trillion is almost 4 times more than the gross world product of the entire planet.
“But wait,” I hear you Bernie and Liz supporters protesting, “nobody is actually talking about giving everybody a million dollars. We just want common sense reforms like single-payer healthcare and student debt forgiveness.”
Okay. Fair enough. Medicare for All has a price tag of $35 trillion over ten years. Before she dropped out of the race, Elizabeth Warren proposed a 6% wealth tax on billionaires to pay for her M4A plan. (Now, a wealth tax would be new to the US, very complex, controversial, and probably unconstitutional. But for the sake of this argument let’s keep things really simple and assume she could tax the net worth of billionaires at 6%.) Her plan would have raised somewhere between $2.3 and $2.7 trillion over ten years. (It would also shrink the economy somewhere between .9 and 2.1%, but that’s beside the point.) Congratulations President Warren, you’ve now paid for, at best, 8 percent of Medicare for All.
My more revolutionary-minded readers may wish to forgo progressive tax systems altogether. Let’s just take it all now. Eat the rich, amirite? Very well, comrades, let’s liquidate every penny those greedy billionaihs have and use it to provide healthcare for all, like the modern-day Robin Hoods we are.
Except…oh. That would pay for 8 and a half percent of Medicare for All. And then it’s gone. No more billionaires left to pay for student loan forgiveness or free college or free child care or the Green New Deal.
Shoot. Well, maybe we can convince all the world’s billionaires to relocate to the US, then we confiscate all their money. Then we could…pay for one quarter of Medicare for All.
What so many on the left today seem not to understand is that while billionaires individually do hold vast wealth, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the spending machine that is the United States federal government. In 2019, the US took in $3.46 trillion in total tax revenue—that includes income, payroll, and corporate taxes. In other words, even if you doubled all projected individual and corporate federal taxes, it wouldn’t be enough to finance Medicare for All. You can’t come up with that kind of money only by raising taxes on the richest of the rich. It’s impossible. They don’t have enough money. (In Bernie’s defense, at least he is admitting his plan would raise taxes on income over $29,000 for families of four.)
Bernie’s student loan forgiveness plan alone would cost $1.6 trillion—a tiny fraction of the price of M4A, but still over half the net worth of all America’s billionaires combined.
If Americans want to expand social services to include things like universal healthcare, free child care, free college, and the Green New Deal, we can certainly have those conversations. But let’s be honest about the cost. There are 327 million of us. We will all have to pay.
No more of this fantasy about the billionaires paying for it all. Believing that’s possible is making us dumb and jealous, and really, really bad at math.