A few months ago, I gave my law students a quick quiz, which you can take yourself if you want (I emphasized to them it was anonymous and therefore not subject to grading, in case you’re wondering about exam pressure).
Here it is. They were given 30 seconds total to answer the two questions (Note that at the time Mike Bloomberg had a reported net worth of $64 billion).
Today’s date is February 20, 2020.
One million seconds from now, the date will be March 2, 2020
One billion seconds from now, the date will be September 23, _____.
64 billion seconds from now, the date will be March 25, _____
. . . .
. . . .
. . . .
The mode for answers to the first question was 2020 (9 of 41 answers). The median was 2024.
The mode for answers to the second question was 2021 (8 of 41 answers). The median was 2089.
I’m convinced that an important factor in the relative lack of serious social dissent against our plutocracy is that we’re just not very good at math.
One million seconds equals 11.6 days. Obviously one billion seconds is a lot more than that, but how much more? Honestly if I had had to give a snap impressionistic answer to this question I probably would have said something like a year and a half. I mean that’s an immensely longer span of time than eleven days after all. The correct answer is 31.7 years.
Even more interesting, to me, were the wildly incorrect answers that people gave to the second question even in the context of their answers to the first one. For example, some people who gave roughly accurate answers to the first question — putting one billion seconds 25 years in the future for example — would then put 64 billion seconds something like 120 years in the future (31.7 years times 64 is 2028.8 years).
Even highly intelligent and extensively educated people [insert lawyer jokes here] have a great deal of trouble grasping what a thousand times more than a million actually means in purely mathematical — let alone social and economic — terms. As for what 138.5 times more than a thousand times more than a million is — fuggitaboudit.
Oh, people don’t even know. If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets. If the average person could see the Virgin Airlines first-class lounge [Ed: Offers spa treatments, “expert mixologists,” and, at Heathrow, a “lodge and viewing deck” with an “après-ski vibe.”,] they’d go, “What? What? This is food, and it’s free, and they … what? Massage? Are you kidding me?”