What Could You Buy With $241 Trillion?

What would happen if you sold everything you own, liquidated any investments you have, paid off all of your debts, and withdrew whatever cash you have in bank accounts?

You’d be standing on the street naked, with nowhere to go, holding a bunch of cash, and people would be looking at you.

holding all your net worth
 
And whatever cash you were holding would be your net worth.

Okay now, imagine that everyone else in the world does that too (just pretend that makes sense), and all the people of the world, naked and holding their wealth in cash, come together and throw their wealth into a big pile together. How much money would be in that pile?

$241,000,000,000,000.

The combined wealth of all the people of the world is $241 trillion.1

So at this point, the whole human race would be standing there together, all naked, all broke, looking at a massive pile of cash.
 
The world's wealth in hundreds
 
Okay, so we’re all in a bit of an odd situation here. Let’s start by organizing the pile, converting it all into $100 bills and making a huge stack of them.
 
stack of bills to the moon

 

One hundred $100 bills ($10,000) makes a 1.09cm-thick stack, so a million dollars stacked is a little over a meter, a billion dollars is a little over a kilometer, and $241 trillion makes a 262,000km-high stack, which reaches 68% of the way to the moon.
 
Bills to the moon
 
Now let’s spread all those bills out on the ground in a single layer. The area of a bill is 103cm2, so 2.41 trillion of them would just about cover Vermont.
 
All world's wealth covering vermont
 
And converting them all to $1 bills, 241 trillion $1 bills would cover Algeria.
 
Algeria covered in $1 Bills
 
Okay enough bills. Let’s try gold. If you took all the gold ever mined in the world and melted it down into a cube, it would have a side of 20.7 meters (and be worth $8.6 trillion).2
 
All the gold ever mined
 
Kind of surprisingly small, right? Well how big would the gold cube be if we had enough gold to represent all $241 trillion of the world’s wealth?

It would be a cube with sides of about 63 meters.
 
All the world's wealth in gold
 
So that cube is what we’re all working with here. And if the world’s wealth were distributed completely evenly and every adult human had an even share, everyone would have $51,600, or this much gold:
 
If wealth were divided evenly
 
But wealth isn’t evenly distributed. Let’s look at what the world’s wealthiest 1% of people have versus the other 99% of people?
 
1 percent guy has 46% of wealth
 
How about the top 10%?
 
10 percent of people have 86 percent of wealth
 
To further demonstrate just how uneven wealth distribution actually is, let’s bring out some of the world’s richest billionaires.3
 
billionaires come out
 
World's richest people

 

Who the hell is Amancio Ortega? I don’t know who you are, please leave.
 
Sad Ortega
 
So Credit Suisse came out with a report recently that revealed that the bottom half of humanity—3.5 billion people—has less than 1% of the world’s total wealth. And starting from the top, it only takes the combined wealth of the richest 85 people to equal the wealth of the bottom 3.5 billion people.
 
World's richest and poorest

 

To put that in perspective, 85 is 1/84 millionth of the world population. So if one jellybean represents 85 people, the human race could be represented with 84 million jellybeans, which would just about fill 2 five-meter-high cubes:

The richest 85 people

So the richest jellybean in the rich-half box has the same wealth as the entire poor-half box combined:

Richest jellybean

To further explore the kind of wealth these 85 people have, let’s take Mark Zuckerberg, the youngest of this group of 85 people that makes up the richest jellybean.

Mark Zuckerberg

Mark is worth just about $30 billion. 1,074 cubic cm is about $1 million of gold. This amount of gold can be made into a big gold coin with a diameter of 26cm (about a foot) and a thickness of 2cm (about an inch). Mark Zuckerberg’s $30 billion can be converted into 30,000 of these million-dollar gold coins:
 
Mark Zuckerberg's Wealth

To help us appreciate how much money that is, think about this: the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, cost $1.5 billion to build. That’s what Mark Zuckerberg makes each year off the interest on his wealth (if he made 5% in interest)—enough to build a new Burj Khalifa each year without denting into his wealth.

Another way to look at it is by understanding how vastly richer a billionaire is than a millionaire. To help demonstrate this point, let’s bring Alex Rodriguez into the discussion, who is worth $300 million—right around the same level as the richest movie stars. And A-Rod’s wealth amounts to only 1% of Mark Zuckerberg’s.
 
A-Rod vs Zuckerberg

How about someone lower down in the wealthiest 1% group—a lesser millionaire? A rich lawyer might have a net worth of $3 million, which is 1% of what A-Rod has.
 
A-Rod's Wealth
The rich lawyer is rich by almost anyone’s standards, but he has nothing compared to A-Rod (1/100th) or Mark Zuckerberg (1/10,000th). Still, because he’s part of the wealthiest 1% of both the world and the US5, we routinely group these three people together in the “1%” category. Categorizing Zuckerberg with the lawyer is as crazy as grouping the lawyer together with someone who has 1/10,000th of what he has—a high school kid who has $300 to his name.

Moving on from the one percenters, let’s bring in an ordinary American. In fact, let’s bring in the ordinary American—the one with the exact median net worth, $44,911.1
 
average american wealth
 
While the mean US net income, at $301,140,1 is one of the world’s highest, the median US net income is far lower and only the 27th highest in the world. It’s a mistake to say that the mean, $301,140, represents the average American’s net worth—that’s just what the wealth of each American would be if all American wealth were divided evenly. For example, in a country of ten people, where nine of them hovered around $30,000 net worth and the tenth was worth $10 million, the mean ($1.027 million) would suggest that the average person was a millionaire. The median wealth would be around $30,000 and a much more accurate representation of how the average person was actually doing.

Likewise, our ordinary American above having the median US net worth means that half of Americans are richer than he is and half are poorer. He’s the average American, and with a net worth of just under $45,000, he’s doing worse than the average member of 26 other countries, including not-so-wealthy countries like Greece and Slovenia.1 The US’s mean wealth / median wealth ratio of 6.7 is one of the highest in the world and suggests that wealth inequality is particularly high in the US.

And how about an average human? How much wealth does the median adult in the world have?

About $4,000.1

average human wealth
 
Even if you adjust for the cost of living in poorer countries, this is pretty low. And this is the median human wealth, meaning that half of all adults have less than $4,000 to their name.

 

hungry

 

Sure. What seems to be the problem?
 
hungry 2

 

Okay annoying, but I guess also fair. Let’s fix this by converting the gold into a big potato of equal value.

How big a potato could you buy with all the world’s wealth? If a typical potato sells in the US for $.33 and a potato is about 15 cubic inches, or 246 cubic cm, so $241 trillion would buy you 179 cubic km of potato, or a potato about 60km long.
 
the world's wealth as a potato
 
Enjoy!
 
huge potato 1

 

huge potato 2
 
Ungrateful.

Fine. How big a pizza could we buy for $241 trillion?

A Domino’s 14″ pizza goes for $19 (at least in New York), which comes out to 52.3cmper dollar. Using that rate, we can convert all human wealth to a pizza with area 1.26 million km2, which is just about the area of Niger.
 
All the World's Wealth in Pizza

 

eating huge pizza
 
Okay yeah, you need water I guess. At Poland Spring’s rate of $1 for a 16.9oz bottle, I can convert the world’s wealth into a 31.8 trillion-gallon bottle with a height of 11.6km, just above where airplanes fly.
 
Huge water bottle
 
I’m sorry you’re in this situation, but there’s nothing more I can really do to help. Instead, I’ll wrap up by converting all $241 trillion of the world’s wealth into tortoise.

To assist with my calculations, I’ve called upon my pet tortoise and close friend of nine years, Winston.

To Winston’s displeasure, I used a tape measure to determine his proportions—he’s roughly 25cm long, 15cm wide, and 13cm high. His original price tag was $200, making the going tortoise rate $.20/cubic cm.

Using that rate, we can convert all the world’s wealth to tortoise and buy ourselves a 2.7km long tortoise.
 
Largest Tortoise in the World

 

Sources

1. Global Wealth Report, Credit Suisse, October 2013.
2. Thomas Reuters GFMS Release – Gold Survey 2013.
3. Forbes Billionaires: Full List of the World’s 500 Richest People.
4. http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0717.pdf
5. http://www.joshuakennon.com/how-much-money-does-it-take-to-be-in-the-top-1-of-wealth-and-net-worth-in-the-united-states/
6. Oxfam Briefing Paper – Working for the Few
7. United Nations - The World Distribution of Household Wealth
8. Unicef – Global Inequality: Beyond the Bottom Billion
9. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/PA.NUS.PPP

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LOOK AT THIS BIG BUTTON WE MADE

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82 comments - jump to comment field »

  1. María

    Hello! Even though it´s really cute how poor Amancio Ortega walks away from the group of richest people in the world, being Spanish I know perfectly well who he is, he´s the founder and until recently the president of the company Inditex, which owns ZARA, the brand of clothes which has now spread almost over the world. He opened the first ZARA shop in the 70´s in Galicia, in the north of Spain. He´s kind of a legend here…well, just so you knew; I spared you some google time with the instant gratification monkey :) Cheers!

  2. Anonymous

    So Algeria is 100 times bigger than Vermont. And it’s tortoises, all the way down. Got it!

    I’ll take geography for $800 please, Alex.

  3. Jorge

    Very surprised you made Amancio walk away. I suppose he took along all of Inditex and ZARA, that´s 50% of all world population´s clothes!!!

  4. Molly

    Only a 20 meter cube of gold EVER MINED??

    I’d love to see you do a post on precious metals and gemstones. The economics are crazy.

    • Wait But Why
      Wait But Why

      I had a whole section on diamonds but didn’t want the post to get too long. If you’re wondering:

      At the rate of $3,250 per carat—

      - a cubic centimeter of diamond is worth about $58,000.
      - a cube with a side of 2.58cm (or about an inch) is worth $1 million.
      - a cube with a side of 25.8cm (or about 10 inches) is worth $1 billion.
      - a cube with a side of 2.58m (or about 8 feet) is worth $1 trillion.
      - all the world’s wealth is represented by a diamond cube with side 15.8m or about 51 feet.
      - diamond is worth about 62 times more than gold per the same volume.

  5. Paul

    I’d love to hear your explanation of why some people have so much wealth while others have so little. After all, you could do a similar kind of analysis on the height of people, as if height were something that could be redistributed.

  6. Stacey Flowers

    You are a GENUIS! I love every ounce of what I learned in this post + illustration! Well done!!! Well FREEggin done!

  7. Wait But Why
    Wait But Why

    I’ve been told that it’s not clear that the tortoise trampling across the Himalayas is in fact my tortoise Winston. I’ve also been told that it’s not clear whether he’s flying or walking, which is preposterous. Finally, I’ve been told that people became worried about me when they saw how this post ended and thought I had had a meltdown.

    • Melissa de Blok

      They just don’t understand your brilliance. I’ve gone from groupie to obsessed stalker who will compare future lovers to you.

      Thanks.

  8. SL

    I like to think he has become more than a mere tortoise. He has become a FLYING SPACE TORTOISE, Who will save the world by hovering awkwardly close to evil and creeping it the hell out.

    The word ‘tortoise’ is starting to look ridiculous right about now.

  9. Poor Man

    Can you please do a post about how we (your readers) can also become a part of this 1% or at least the 10% club?
    I know there is heaps of information out there on how they did it but I quite like your insight and perspective on things.

    Greetings from the land down under…mate!

  10. Linear

    Great column, ripe for a sequel.

    Let’s say my rich uncle, who’s worth $100 million, lives in the same Zip Code with a eight other equally wealthy folks and the esteemed Mr. Bloomberg (worth $33 billion); just the ten families. Their average worth is $3.3 billion, their median worth a paltry $100 million.

    BUT, the mean/median ratio is a stunning 33,000,000. Inequality? Hell yeah. Would I want to live in this Zip Code?

    I could do a lot worse.

    • wobster109

      A median net worth of 45,000 means you don’t own a house. Not even a small house. Remember, that’s not your annual income. That’s how much you’ve saved up in all your life.

      • Linear

        The point is that income inequality is only one metric, and not necessarily the most important one. If the richest family on the block only has $100 net worth, everyone’s poor there. The net worth thing is also potentially misleading, as if everyone actually hoards their little pile of cash. The big-bucks folks are usually heavily invested in the economy, which indirectly supports the livelihood of many others. We can always compare ourselves to others but it’s pointless. We should be looking at why so many are poor, not just scapegoating the few who are so rich; a zero-sum mentality usually gets us nowhere.

        • wobster109

          See, I’m frustrated because the rich are pointing at me, and sneering, and bragging, “I put myself through school”. You know, back when a semester of college was about $1000. I’m lucky and privileged to be free of student loans, but my friends are less lucky. When I try to talk about it, I get shut down by people who point to my dear friends and call them names – “lazy”, “unmotivated”, and questioning their judgment for getting into debt – never mind that the debt is student loans.

          It’s very frustrating. We’re the common folk, the average working American. We’re trying to have a conversation, but our leadership doesn’t want to listen.

  11. Munchkins

    Why are we all naked? Surely, with $241 trillion, we could spare some loose change for basic clothing. #missingthepoint

  12. Charlie

    Yes! Just as I was turning depressed and communist, you brought all back with the classic potato-pizza-water bottle-tortoise conversion/move. Well done sir, well done.

  13. wobster109

    I’m. . . pretty upset about this. I’m upset about that fellow on the 46% side of the block. In real life he (and it usually is a he) doesn’t say “sorry”. He says “why don’t you work harder and quit being jealous.” While cutting food stamps and constricting Medicaid.

  14. theplanbee

    I want to start by saying that this is my favorite blog, and I look forward to reading it every week. So funny and informative. You obviously put a lot of work into it. I hope you keep it going. I’ve found the procrastination posts in particular to be poignantly insightful. I also enjoyed getting to know all my ancestors!

    You might want to double check the math on how much area the bills cover. It just didn’t feel right that all the world’s wealth in $100 bills would only cover Vermont. If your 103sq.cm figure is correct for the area of a bill, I think you are off by a factor of 100 in your examples. My calculations show that the $100 bills would cover Algeria, and the $1 bills would cover more than the entire Pacific, Atlantic, and Southern Oceans. Work below:

    (103cm^2)(1m/100cm)(1m/100cm)(1km/1000m)(1km/1000m)= 1.03×10^-8 sq.km per bill
    (1.03×10^-8)(2.41×10^14)= 2.48×10^6 sq.km or 2,480,000 sq.km for the $100 bills (a little bigger than the size of Algeria)

    I’ve double checked, and I don’t think I’m off.

    • Wait But Why
      Wait But Why

      You scared me for a second there, but here’s your mistake:

      You multiplied the area of a bill by 2.41×10^14, which is 241 trillion. 241 trillion is the number of $1 bills that would equal the world’s wealth (and that’s what covers Algeria). For your $100 calculation, you should have used 2.14×10^12 instead, because the number of $100 bills in question is 2.14 trillion, not 241 trillion. That divides everything by 100 and brings us down to the size of Vermont.

      Make sense?

      • theplanbee

        Yep. You’re right. My bad. Late-night math with the baby crying in the other room can affect one’s decimal placement. Thanks for setting me straight, and keep up the good work!

  15. Voracious Reader

    There’s been so much press about income inequality, but this is the first one that made me laugh instead of sighing heavily. Thanks for the sobering insight along with the needed chuckle.

  16. Paul

    Wait. I have been loving Wait But Why for months now, and it just hit me that it’s written by my favorite blogger ever…Tim from Underneath the Turban!!!!!!! And you know how I figured that out? WINSTON!!

    When I heard the name Winston for a turtle, I thought “Where do I know that turtle?” and then it hit me.

    I was in love with Underneath the turban and Wait But Why was the first blog I found since then that I liked as much and NOW THIS ALL MAKES SO MUCH SENSE.

    Thanks for brightening my life and I’m so happy you’re writing again!

      • Anonymous

        It’s Friday, and I just discovered that you have another blog that could consume my work day. BUT “This blog is open to invited readers only”. Please, I have 8 more hours to kill. I am begging you.

    • boso

      Yeah, I found that blog as well while I was going on a Stalking-Tim-Urban-Tour. But it is closed down :( Toooooooo bad. I’m still planning on learning to become a hacker, so I can hack it and read the posts nevertheless.

  17. Kim

    What is a product that the really super rich would pay anything for that only the super poor can provide?

    Maybe we can convince them that the poor have their souls?

    Beats me. But we have to think of something….anybody got any ideas?

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  20. johanka

    Superb post. The only thing I don’t understand is why you were switching between golden cubes and large golden coins when comparing Zuckerberg, a movie star, an average lawyer, an average American, and an average person. If you stuck to golden cubes it would make your point even stronger.

    • wobster109

      I think the coins is so each coin (1 cm height) becomes 1 million dollars. That was each person has a round number of coins.

    • Wait But Why
      Wait But Why

      The reason I didn’t use a cube for Zuckerberg, A-Rod, and a rich lawyer’s wealth is that using three dimensions actually helps to conceal the vast discrepancy in wealth in question. Using a stack of equal-diameter coins puts the comparison in one dimension so you can more easily compare.

      i.e. Zuckerber’s stack is 100 times higher than A-Rods, but his cube only has a side 4.6 times longer than A-Rod’s, which makes them look closer than they really are.

      Make sense?

      • johanka

        Yes, this makes sense and I expected this is the reason. But, I would still like to see the comparison of an average lawyer, an average American and an average person in one drawing, using identical measure for all. Because that’s where it’s getting personal for most of us;)

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  22. Mike Minetti

    Is it possible to get an invite to read your old stuff on Underneath the Turban?
    This is the best blog on the Internet, so I can only assume that there is some gold in those old posts – amirite?

    • Wait But Why
      Wait But Why

      I’m flattered by the interest, but going to keep it locked for now—it’s a huge sprawling pile of personal anecdotes and opinions that 23-28 year-old Tim decided was fit to publish online, and 32-year-old Tim needs to just go through it and make sure he agrees. I’ll get to that sometime soon and maybe unlock it down the road.

  23. The Bridge

    I might be really missing something, but I don’t know how you are getting $51,600 average (mean) income per person. With $241 Trillion I am getting average income of about:
    $34k for 7 billion people
    $40k for 6 billion people
    $48k for 5 billion people

  24. Bruce

    according to my numbers you would only reach 0.068 of the distance to the moon, or 6.8%, which makes covering Vermont more acceptable. I knew one of these 2 had to be wrong, just from a volumetric standpoint

  25. Bruce

    241 trillion / $100 = 241,000,000,000
    155.956mm*241,000,000,000 = 3.7585396^13 mm
    3.7585396^13 mm * 66.294mm = 2.49168624242^15 mm^2
    2.49168624242^15 mm^2 -> Km^2 = 2491.6862Km^2
    2491.6862Km^2= 1/10 of Vermont…
    ?

  26. Bruce

    And for the moon –
    1.09cm/100 = 0.109mm
    0.109mm*241,000,000,000 100$ bills = 26,322,020m or 26,322Km or less than 7% of the way to the moon.

  27. Frankie

    I was so bored I am 12 and I was just browsing math omg I have not seen such brilliant math like this in months u r pretty smart we should talk some time

  28. David

    I hate to say this, but at 1st I thought the tortoise was mean to satisfy the complaining, hungry and thirsty masses. How long would a “theoretical” tortoise this size sustain the earth’s population?

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  31. Game over

    I find your ambitious math skills the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen. You’ve officially ruined all other men for me, save, maybe, some other brilliant mathematician somewhere yet-to-be-discovered…..but he is probably 64 years old, which is slightly out of my dating age range.

    thanks a lot, guys. A whole, freaking lot.***

    *sarcastically.

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  34. Krattz

    this blog is awesome. i love how you can go from talking about a very serious issue like how hideously uneven the distribution of our wealth is to figuring how big a tortoise we could buy if we all chipped in everything we had (totally worth just for that picture)

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