Sometimes, though, the idea seems pretty great until Twitter points out that it isn’t.
Journalist Mekita Rivas had one such tweet on Tuesday, arguing on Twitter that former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s campaign for president was not only unsuccessful but a shocking waste of money.
“Bloomberg spent $500 million on ads. The U.S. population is 327 million,” Rivas wrote. “He could have given each American $1 million and still have money left over. I feel like a $1 million check would be life-changing for most people. Yet he wasted it all on ads and STILL LOST.”
It should be immediately obvious where the math falls apart here. Five hundred million divided among 327 million people is the same as $500 divided among 327 people. If you divide $500 among 327 people, each person does not end up with $1 million.
We can put it visually if we want, which we do, because we are me.
Say this little stack of money is $1 million.
Here’s $500 million, the amount Bloomberg spent on his campaign, give or take.
How many million-dollar piles is that? Well, 500. Five hundred million is 500 millions. Bloomberg could have given 500 people $1 million dollars. Rivas was right in one regard, though: Bloomberg could have given $1 million to each of the 351 voters in American Samoa, the one contest he won, and still had $149 million left over for all of the other contests — more than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has reported spending so far on his presidential bid.
Nonetheless, Rivas’s math quickly spurred a perhaps expected response on Twitter. Rivas’s tweets are now protected; visitors to the page see a bio that now begins, “I know, I’m bad at math.”
All of this happened on Tuesday and Wednesday. So it was surprising to see Rivas’s tweet pop up again on MSNBC on Thursday night — touted as an accurate presentation of Bloomberg’s spending.
Humans aren’t necessarily bad at math, but we are indisputably bad at scale. As we evolved, we had no need to intuitively understand the concept of a million, much less a billion. We get the difference between $1 and $1,000, but the transition from “million” to “billion” feels more like the transition from 10 to 20 than going from a thousand thousands to a thousand thousand thousands. Combine that blind spot with a predisposition to see Bloomberg’s spending as wasteful and here we are.
Look, Bloomberg has a lot of money. If we extend our little million-dollar pile out to $1 billion, it looks like this.
Bloomberg has, as of writing, about 62 of those. Specifically, he has 61,900 stacks of $1 million, a sum that to a normal human itself seems hard to grasp.
Were he to make all of his net worth liquid, just convert it all into a giant pile of money, he’d therefore have enough money to give 61,900 Americans life-changing $1 million checks. That’s about enough to give $1 million to each of the votes he got in Minnesota on Tuesday.
If you’re curious, he spent about $450 per vote he received as of Wednesday morning. If he wanted to actually write a check to every American, which he is more than welcome to do, everyone would end up with about $190 — not life-changing, but not bad.
Would he have won the election had he been so generous? Consider that Andrew Yang’s candidacy was predicated on giving everyone $1,000 through the government and he got about 68,000 votes before dropping out. So, probably not.
The best way to have gotten gobs of money from Bloomberg’s campaign wasn’t hypothetical checks. It was to have worked for it.