How millions and billions are different

There’s a big difference between a million and a billion, even though you commonly see them appearing together at the same political function.

It’s a difference that can be expressed in ways other than dollars.

For example, a million seconds is just shy of 12 days. A billion seconds? That’s almost 32 years!

See what I mean? The difference is startling and can be offputting when you’re playing in a nickel-dime game.

Let me trot out another example. Suppose you are a member of an Alpena household earning the median income for our area of $37,700. If you were in a position to not pay taxes and were able to save that entire amount, it would still take you over 26 years to save a million dollars, not counting any interest you would have earned.

If you think this is something you would like to do, you best get cracking.

Same deal, but now you want to keep saving until you have a billion dollars. You think it would be a nice gesture to leave a little something to the great-great-grandkids. But you will have to save for many generations beyond them before a billion dollars is reached, and that could be tricky. It will take you 26,500 years to accumulate that sum!

Last year, a certain hedge fund manager earned $1.5 billion. Think about that.


The city of Norwich is a half-hour train ride from my son’s home in England. William the Conquer was a resident there awhile back. In 1075, William built a castle in Norwich that yet stands at the city’s center. Fittingly, they call it Norwich castle.

For a not-unreasonable sum, tourists can gain access and have free run of the place.

Back in 1075, only those with wealth, power, and land had free run.

Most of the people who lived around the castle — rather than in it – had no wealth or power. Perhaps they were friends of my similarly situated Welsh ancestors. In any event, I suspect those people cared not a whit for a castle tour. They were primarily interested in feeding their families. Land barons with free reign had fenced them out of the common farmland, leaving them to starve.

A group of excluded folks got together under the leadership of Robert Kett and protested, to no effect. The result was “Kett’s rebellion,” otherwise referred to as “the commotion time”.

This commotion really got going in July 1549. So much so those in the castle had to bring in government troops to restore the inequities. They captured Robert, convicted him of treason, and hanged him from the walls of the castle.


Now, jump ahead 400 years to 1949, to when the people of Norwich placed a plaque at the castle’s entrance. Inscribed on this plaque are these simple profound words:

“In honor of Robert Kett, a noble and courageous leader in the long struggle of the common people of England to escape from a servile life into the freedom of just conditions.”

I’ve not seen it stated better — what we all desire — “The freedom of just conditions”.


We live in a meritocracy, where — with notable exceptions — the smartest, most talented, and hardest-working among us are compensated the more favorably. That’s as it should be.

But people earning the most and living in today’s castles have money to invest, which allows them to make even more money while paying less tax. Those in more humble situations and accommodations are compelled to use their income to buy groceries, pay the rent, and pay off debt.

The castle crowd can pass on their castle — and their stock — to future generations, paying little or no tax in that process, and they, in turn, can invest that wealth accumulating even more. The un-castled have nothing to pass.

After awhile big differences build up; fences get built.

As of 2016, the top 1% of our population owned more than the entire middle class — the middle 60% of all of us (https://tinyurl.com/y67fyk9e).

Janet Yellen, former chairperson of the Federal Reserve, said this:

” There’s no question we’ve had a trend toward growing inequality,” and this trend “can shape and determine the ability of different groups to participate equally in a democracy with grave effects on social stability over time” (The Nation, May 7, 2014).

I wonder if fences are again blocking access to the freedom of just conditions?

Without just conditions, there can be no freedom.

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs weekly on Saturdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.


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