Buy the Numbers

dollar bills 0219I don’t know about you, but I fling numbers about with careless abandon. Just yesterday I offered Lynn 100 million dollars to bring me a checkbook, since I was trapped in my chair under Na Ki’o.

But sometimes something comes along to make you think about what numbers really mean.

I’ve referenced The Phantom Tollbooth before —

And if you haven’t read this, you really should. I once recommended it to a family of three kids (now all fully grown), and all three of them loved it so much they referred to it as “The Phantom TLbooth.”

— in it there’s a scene where Milo attempts to climb stairs to get to Infinity. He meets half a boy who lives in Infinity, who assures Milo that no matter how fast or far he climbs, he will never make it there.

Then there was a book I meant to read but never did about the history of zero. Several numeric systems have apparently functioned without this digit, but I’m not sure how. If I ever get around to reading the book, I’ll know.

And then there’s a billion. It rhymes with million; sometimes they seem rather interchangeable. If you’re a millionaire, you’re not that far removed from billionaire, right? When the federal government spends money, million and billion seem comingled. And for many, many people, a million seems as unattainable as a billion, so what does it matter, million or billion?

But then sometimes something comes along that makes you realize there are chasms of difference, especially for people who aren’t likely to earn one million even after a lifetime of work.

I don’t really expect to be “feeling the Bern” when it finally comes time to select presidential candidates, which a year from now might include every Democrat in the country and a handful of Republicans, plus Howard Schultz and/or Michael Bloomberg. And I don’t understand Twitter at all, let alone follow it, but the Washington Post does.

Within the Post, they have a little cadre of “fact checkers” who, in the two and a half years I’ve been reading the paper, have focused on statements made by politicians. They “award” one to four Pinnochios, depending on how egregious the statement is, based on its distance from actual fact, and they recently came up with a special category for un-facts that keep getting repeated as fact. But they also offer a “Geppetto Checkmark” for when a politician makes a bold statement that seems on its face to not be true but turns out to be correct.

And this is what Bernie Sanders tweeted on Valentine’s Day that earned him a Geppetto Checkmark: The Walton family makes more money in one minute than Walmart workers do in an entire year.

One minute. Sixty seconds, and a family has earned in dividend income alone what one of their full-time employees might take home in a year. It seems a fantastical claim, and fact-checker Glenn Kessler appears to have gone into it quite the skeptic. But he did some math, and concluded that Bernie is right: in the time it takes to read a few paragraphs of this blog, the Walton family, controlling slightly more than 51% of Walmart shares, picks up $25,000 plus change in dividend income. (This is based on a 40-hour work week, not a round-the-clock calculation.)

It’s well worth the $75,000 of your time it will take to read Mr. Kessler’s full fact-check, which you can do here.

If you make $25,000 per year over a 30-year career, which of course you wouldn’t due to things like inflation and raises and job changes, but let’s start there: if you work 40 hours a week for 30 years, that’s 62,400 hours spent in toil, and you will be three-quarters of your way to your first million dollars.

Even if you, with your raises and job changes, make it to one million, you would need to multiply that a thousand times to get to your first billion. From dividends, the Walton family will get three times that this year alone.

Now, lots of people make more than $25,000 — but not lots of people who work at Walmart. My book group, which is being revived after a moribund couple of years, had a pushme-pullyu thing with Walmart. One member’s sister, who died of cancer, spent her entire career at Walmart, and her brother said the company treated her very well and provided excellent insurance. Another member’s wife worked at Walmart in a junior management position while simultaneously spending a lot of time at the doctor’s office trying to solve a baffling series of migraines. She quit working at Walmart, and the migraines stopped immediately. (I don’t want to imply it was the store itself; I think her boss, and perhaps company policies, played a large part in the headaches.)

I’m not a real fan of Walmart, and I generally manage to shop around it (although Lynn gets Ki’o’s diabetes supplies there), and my dislike of the City Market pharmacy may yet drive me across the parking lot to Walmart, but I have to confess that I used to — back when Sam was still around and they proudly touted how their merchandise was made in the U.S.A. — enjoy looking through their fliers, which featured employees and their families as the models. Cynically, I might now think this saved them from spending money on professional models, but as an advertising gimmick, it worked on me. It made me think they were a homespun, family-friendly company.

I haven’t thought that for many years now, and I especially started re-thinking it when they would point to “company” largesse in the charitable realm. The less egregious tactic they use is to collect donations from their customers and then proclaim it as a donation from Walmart, which merely facilitated the process. More grievous is asking the $25,000 (usually less) a year employees to donate out of their paychecks, and proudly announcing what a grand donation “Walmart” is making. Because you wouldn’t want to deprive anyone in the family of a minute’s-worth of income, now would you?

If you’re among those whose get-rich plan doesn’t include marrying or being adopted into the Walton family (I think I’ve blown my chances right here), you might play the lottery. But here’s what someone so far is walking away from in West Virginia: 1.5+ billion (that’s with the B) dollars.

You may recall the second-largest jackpot ever was won by a single ticket holder last fall. But so far, no one has stepped forward to claim the prize, and only about 60 days remain to do so before the money is dispersed back to the 44 states that participate in Mega-Millions.

The real loser, other than the person who other tossed their ticket or stuck it in a jacket pocket and forgot about it (how’d you like to put on your lightweight jacket for the first time in months, reach into the pocket and pull out your forgotten ticket, one day after the deadline passed? Man, let’s not think about that), will be the state of Virginia (or is it West Virginia? You’d think a Washington Post reader would know the difference), which stands to lose something like $160 million in income taxes. The store that sold it is supposed to get $50,000 just for selling the ticket, but not unless someone comes forward. (That’s two whole minutes of Walton income.)

CBS tells me the last time someone let a lottery win go by the wayside was back in 2002, but it was for mere millions. Millions, billions . . . they’re pretty much the same, right?



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