Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number

Considering the prominence we give it in our society, Americans seem to have a lot of trouble talking about money.

All sorts of odd communicational shorthand has arisen around the rather simple concept of money, to the degree that we have found ourselves voluntarily handicapped when discussing the very thing we have built our entire culture and values system around.  Some of these are merely amusing, such as the curious dramatic trope of writing amounts of money on a piece of paper rather than saying them out loud, just like no one has ever actually done.  Others are ham-handed attempts at workplace dominance disguised as behavioral niceties, such as the bogus stricture that one must never reveal one’s salary to one’s co-workers; money (and class, money’s social signifier) is often invoked as something not to be discussed in polite company along with religion and politics, no doubt accounting for the is-it-raining-where-you-are banality of conversation with strangers.  Lying about money is practically the national pastime of the United States; poor people lie about it to avoid shame and disgrace, rich people lie about it to deflect envy and outrage, and the hilariously named financial services industry lies about it to make more of it.

Part of the problem, of course, lies in definitions.  What we talk about when we talk about money depends on who we’re talking to, and who might be listening.  The late Neil Postman once astutely observed that we are used to thinking of “big words” as being complicated and daunting, when in fact the opposite is true:  polysyllabic mouthfuls like ‘participle’ or ‘centrifugal’ have very specific fixed meanings upon which everyone agrees, while defining seemingly simple words like ‘true’ or ‘good’ leads us into an inescapable rat’s nest of contentious debate.  So, too, is the case whenever we discuss dollars and cents:  the meaning of simple terms becomes frustratingly thorny, often by design.

Take, for example, the notion of ‘debt’.  We have been trained to think of the national debt as resembling a household debt; indeed, there is a popular internet meme, endlessly re-posted by partisans of both the left and the right, that makes this comparison explicit.  But wiser heads have reminded us that in fact, the national debt is nothing at all like a family budget, and to conceive it as such is to make a profound error in understanding our national financial priorities.  The national debt is more an obligation of which we must be mindful than an actual number with the kind of meaning we affix to overdrafts on our checking accounts.  ‘Earn’ is another word that’s hard to pin down; conservatives often claim that people receiving social services did not ‘earn’ that money, even if they’ve fallen on hard times after decades of paying money into the system.  But those same conservatives also support things like the extension of intellectual property laws, and the repeal of inheritance taxes; it’s hard to conceive of a person who did less to ‘earn’ their riches than one who was just born into a wealthy family.

Budgets, too, are something we are encouraged to think of in very different ways depending on who is asking us to think about them and to what end.  The financial conservatives, when they are in the mood for belt-tightening, always sell austerity measures in terms of budget expenditures that we as a nation can simply no longer afford.  This rarely applies to military and security spending, however; the vast quantities of cash we shovel into national defense is almost always justified with the claim that they are used to protect our freedoms.  Another prickly word, though, that ‘freedom’:  some folks would argue that there’s little use in protecting one’s freedom when one has no money and the only freedom offered is the freedom to starve.  Even that strain of ultra-conservative fiscal hawk that will allow for cuts to the military budget will not touch such secretive — and staggeringly expensive — allowances as the national security budget and the Pentagon’s so-called ‘black budget’, the literally uncountable billions that go to projects, almost all developed by private industry, the results of which we will never know and the details of which we are not allowed to ask.  Few households could function if one of their members were allowed to set aside gigantic piles of money for secret projects about which no one was ever allowed to inquire.  And, too, any poor family will tell you that the greatest expenditures go towards events that cannot be predicted, and, therefore, cannot be budgeted:  health crises, car repairs, natural disasters, and the like.  Our government, conversely, has begun to to place in the realm of the unbudgeted voluntary boondoggles like the Iraq War, which is best visualized as a huge bonfire into which we continually threw money every single minute for eight years.

Speaking of visualizations, the amounts of money we spend on this or that item are often presented in terms of a stack of bills that reaches to (insert distant object here), as if people were having trouble with the physical size of the money rather than its value.  “Rich” is another one of those short words that is almost impossible to define, except insofar as almost everyone, rich or poor, defines it as “someone who has more money than I do”; and so the question of how much money constitutes a lot of money becomes a lot more difficult than it needs to be.  Two such disparate characters as Sam Spade and Casper Gutman were once able to agree that a million dollars is a lot of dough, but nowadays, all we hear is how a million dollars isn’t what it used to be.  Loretta Lynn once sang about how her father raised eight kids on miner’s pay (which, for our younger readers, is approximately jack shit thousand dollars per year, adjusted for inflation), and managed to sound pretty cheerful about it; today, there are entire websites dedicated to the morose bitching of people trying to raise one kid on banker’s pay.  So, whenever people talk about money — especially the kind of money that the owners of our country tend to have — I find this to be a useful illustration.

Ever since that glorious day in August of 1927 when the nation’s millionaires officially ceded control of America over to the nation’s billionaires, the G.O.P. has been the party of the very, very rich.  The party as currently constituted may not agree on much, but they do agree on this:  millionaires pay far too much in taxes, and billionaires pay far, far, far too much in taxes.  Official Republican godhead Ronald Reagan literally defined the party as the one that “wants to see an America in which people can still get rich“; more recent developments have subtly altered this to “still get richer”, and later to “still stay richer”.  If the G.O.P. of Grover Norquist, of the Tea Party and the Anti-Tax Pledge, can be said to stand for anything, it is that billionaires should be all but exempt from taxation, and that they should be free to do anything they like with their money short of being asked to help people who haven’t got any.

To appreciate what this really means, it seems necessary to get a grip on exactly how much a billion dollars (or, if you prefer, a thousand ‘doesn’t-go-as-far-as-it-used-to’ million dollars) really is.  Let us say that you are the freshly scrubbed recipient of one billion dollars, which you have gotten through a clever combination of sound investments and emerging from a vagina into which a rich man once shot a load of sperm.  You have already paid your 14% tax rate on the money, just like your chauffer and your maid except a lot less, and you have decided:  “You know what?  Fuck my stupid kids.  Fuck saving for the future.  Fuck investments and wise financial discipline.  I’m going to take all this money, convert it into cash, and start spending it like the Rapture is coming.  I’m not even going to put a single goddamn dime of it into a shitty low-yield savings account at some swindling mega-bank.  I’m just gonna start pissing it away, to the tune of $25,000 every single day, until the money runs out.”  That’ll show whoever!

So starting on January 1st of the new year, you pay some college intern to take your money and put it into stacks of 250 $100 bills.  They’re too big to put in your pocket so you take the first stack and you pay Shoshanna Lonstein to design you a special money hat.  And you set out on your mission to piss away the rest of the billion dollars, 25 grand at a time.  At first, it’s easy.  You pay off your student loans.  You buy a couple of giant houses, a couple of giant cars, a couple of giant bags of cocaine.  You take a trip to Europe.  You hire a homeless guy to break a bottle against his face.  But then you start to notice:  you’ve already bought yourself every possible material comfort you have ever imagined, and it’s not even April.  That’s when you decide to sit down and do the math: starting with a billion dollars, and spending $25,000 every single day — an amount of money that over 70 million American adults do not make in an entire year — it will take you over 109 years to spend it all.  If you are old enough to read these words, it is basically impossible that, following this course of action, you would live long enough to do anything but leave your children multiple millions of dollars.

Now, of course, not every big Republican donor has a billion dollars.  Many have far more than that.  Swift Boat funder T. Boone Pickens is worth triple that amount; Amway guru Rich DeVos is worth over $4 billion; Christian arch-conservative Philip Anschutz   has about $6.4 billion to his name; and FOX News prince of darkness Rupert Murdoch clocks in at well over $7 billion.  The shadowy Koch Brothers spend huge chunks of cash funding conservative causes and disseminating right-wing propaganda; lucky for them they have $50 billion in cash-chunks.  (Which means that they could spend $1,250,000 a day for over a century without running out.)  And at the very top, the Walton family of exurban retail banditry is worth a combined total of $90 billion, meaning that they could spend our arbitrary $25,000 a day retroactively going back to the beginning of human civilization and still have tens of millions left over.

These people all do two things with their time:  make more money, and lobby to ensure that they have to pay as little money as possible into the system that allowed them to make all the money they already have.  They have so much that I have to invent perverse illustrations like the one above just to render the amount of cash they have to hand fathomable to the human mind, and yet their primary occupations are increasing that amount and ensuring that virtually none of it goes to helping people who have less by orders of magnitude.  It’s just something to think about the next time someone mentions austerity measures, or assures you that the country simply hasn’t got the money to spend on a social safety net any more.

2 SHOTS LICKED so far.

  1. Justin
    01/25/2012 at 9:34 AM

    At my last job part of our employee contract was that we were forbidden to discuss our salaries with each other.

  2. Professor Coldheart
    01/25/2012 at 11:10 AM

    One of the ways in which Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed amazed me was that it depicted just how autistic a capitalist culture is in many ways. And I say this still having some fondness for capitalism (it’s done all right by me). But LeGuin does such a fantastic job, through the protagonist of Shevek, illustrating just how weird the notion of possession is: how weird it is to say this room is yours, this man is yours, this money is yours and when you run out that’s it.

    I thought about that when reading your first graf.

    When reading the last one, I thought, of course, about Chinatown:

    Jake Gittes: How much are you worth?
    Noah Cross: I have no idea. How much do you want?
    Jake Gittes: I just wanna know what you’re worth. More than 10 million?
    Noah Cross: Oh my, yes!
    Jake Gittes: Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can’t already afford?
    Noah Cross: The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.


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