Bernie Sanders

Powerball Meme Mathematical Illiteracy Illustrates Bernie Sanders' Appeal

Politics suffer from a lack of numeracy among the public, and politicians.


Bernie Sanders is experiencing a bit of a surge in the polls as the presidential campaign season heads toward the first primary contests next month, in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. He's held the lead in New Hampshire since December 3, and has pulled to within 12 points of Hillary Clinton in national polling. In an interview this Sunday with George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week, Sanders said he was the most electable candidate on the Democrat side.

Sanders previously experienced a bit of a surge in the polls over the summer but that didn't get him past Clinton. Nevertheless, Clinton has been tacking leftward toward Sanders even before the summer surge, and Sanders' "democratic socialism" may represent the future of Democrats. Sanders has built his popularity almost exclusively on promises to spend more money not just on the poor but not on everybody, without even a hint that he understands why that would only exacerbate the "wealth inequality" he rails so often against.

Sanders hasn't been specific about where the money would come from, mentioning only one transaction tax on Wall Street. Such a tax, by itself, wouldn't come close to funding Sanders' promises—his plans require massive tax hikes not just on the rich but on the middle class, meaning his efforts at offering everyone an education could not only increase inequality (since richer people are, in general, more likely to take advantage of entitlements like a "free education") but also actually redistribute wealth upward.

Sanders' success despite this is due to America's mathematical illiteracy and today on social media, among all the tributes and pictures and videos of David Bowie, one meme went so viral as to merit a response from just an hour ago.

Here's the meme:

The math is way off. Divided among 300 million Americans, the $1.2 billion Powerball jackpot, even before taxes and the cut taking it as lump sum (as most people do) comes with, would amount to just $4.00 per person, not $4 million. That's not a minor error, it's off by six orders of magnitude. And it's not an uncommon one. brought up a similar meme from last year, which I remember seeing, that thought $317 million of Obamacare spending was enough to just give every American about $1 million each.

How much would it actually take for the government to "give" every American a million dollars? $300 trillion. If the government spends about $4 trillion a year, it would take 75 years of federal spending to give every American alive today $1 million. By then there would be millions if not a billion more Americans.

There's a relevant Richard Feynman quotes about big numbers. "There are 1011 stars in the galaxy," Feynman once said. "That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." That was at least three decades ago—the annual deficit is at about a trillion now.

People have trouble conceptualizing numbers as big as a thousand, let alone a million, billion, or trillion. They listen to Bernie Sanders and come to the conclusion if only government took more money from "billionaires" it could fund everything for everyone.  Appeals to reason and math are discounted as right-wing propaganda.

Here's another fun meme about this:

Share your own favorites below.