The Definition of a Trillionaire

As of this writing, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary does not have a definition for the word “trillionaire.” But they may want to start drafting one because experts are predicting we’ll need it in about 10 years’ time.

Last week, we told you about Oxfam’s new eye-popping report, Inequality Inc. All of the top-line findings were jaw-dropping, but one in particular has generated a significant amount of buzz: if the wealth of the world’s five richest billionaires continues to grow at the same rate it has over the last five years, the world could see its first trillionaire in the next ten years. Even mainstream outlets like AP NewsUSA TodayBusiness Insider, and The Washington Post are all devoting serious ink to the prediction.

The prospect of a single human controlling $1 trillion in wealth is both stupefying and profoundly dangerous. Policymakers need to take this possibility seriously, and that starts with understanding just how gargantuan $1 trillion really is, as well as the underlying mechanisms that enable the accumulation of that much wealth in the first place. Let’s dive in.

We’d like to start the discussion by giving you a few ways to grasp just how much money $1,000,000,000,000 really is:

  • To make $1 trillion, the median full-time American worker (making $59,540 a year) would have to work 16,795,432 years. That’s longer than human beings have existed.
  • If you laid out $1 trillion on the ground using only $1 bills, it would cover an area roughly equal in size to Lebanon.
  • The distance between the Earth and the Moon is approximately 238,900 miles. If you lined up $1 trillion worth of $1 bills lengthwise, you could take approximately 202 “round trips” to the Moon and back.
  • The median home price in the US was $412,000 in 2023. At that rate, a trillionaire could afford to buy 2,427,184 homes and provide every homeless person with a house. Alternatively, they could buy 3,636 superyachts.
  • If you think of the median US household (with wealth of $192,900) as the weight of a paperclip, a trillionaire would be about the weight of an African elephant.

If you need a second to reread and fully digest all that, we understand. Keep reading whenever you’re ready.

The prospect of the world’s first trillionaire is not cause for celebration. While we can’t know for certain what all the ramifications of having a trillionaire in our midst would be, we know enough to be quite alarmed. This is because we’ve already seen the damage a handful of billionaires can wreak on our economies, democracies, and shared ecological home. They wield too much power, both private and public, and have too much sway in shaping our day-to-day lives. They can buy up entire social media platforms on a whim (and subsequently run them to the ground), dictate global COVID vaccination strategies, single-handedly change the course of an entire war, and treat entire towns like their own personal playgrounds. They dominate campaign spending and, in turn, have outsized influence over who gets to run for office and who wins elections. They deserve significant portions of the blame for climate change on account of their luxurious, jet-setting lifestyles. In short, a trillionaire will be able to do these things – and more – on an unprecedented scale.

Consider that owning $1 trillion would make an individual human being the 20th largest economy on the planet. One person would have more money than the entire GDP of Switzerland, and rank just behind Saudi Arabia. They would have more money than any nation on the continent of Africa, more wealth than any country in South America except Brazil, and rank among the richest economies of Asia. One human.

Oxfam’s finding is bolstered by our very own Senior Tax Policy Advisor, Bob Lord. He has been warning about the prospect of the United States’ first trillionaire for over a decade. Back in 2014, when asked by CNBC, he predicted we would see our first trillionaire before 2039. Two years ago, he wrote in about how the shape of the Forbes list resembled that of the 1982 Forbes list, only 100 times larger, and warned that “the era of trillionaire trust fund babies is fast approaching.”

The good thing is that it’s not too late to prevent the world’s first trillionaire. We have the solutions already: raising tax rates on capital income, taxing wealth and unrealized capital gains (like our OLIGARCH Act would do), closing loopholes like carried interest, and taxing inheritances would all go a long way in reining in runaway wealth. We can also put a check on the emergent oligarch class by lifting the wage floor in the United States to something a person can live on and strengthening collective bargaining rights.

It’s not yet clear who the world’s first trillionaire will be, but certainly, the race has begun. Let’s hope lawmakers act swiftly and decisively to curb extreme wealth so we never have to find out and Merriam-Webster doesn’t have to log a new word.