No wonder Jeff Bezos wants to go to space. It’s the only way he can visualize all of his money at once.
One of the most popular and interactive pieces at the 4th Annual Seattle Art Fair —happening this weekend at Paul Allen’s CenturyLink Field Event Center — is Chris Burden’s Scale Model of the Solar System, which is exactly what it sounds like. Starting with a 13" scale model of the Sun, located in Gagosian’s space-themed booth at the fair, visitors are encouraged to take a map and find the other planets scattered around the neighborhood. Mercury is on the other side of the Gagosian booth, a tiny dot some 36 feet away from the Sun. Venus, Earth, and Mars are stationed in the venue’s VIP lounge, café, and bookstore respectively. The outer planets are located in nearby buildings, and finally little Pluto — still a planet when these sculptures were created in 1983 — is installed a mile away at the Seattle Art Museum.
The piece is a neat visualization of astronomical distances, and it got me thinking: What would it look like if we mapped the wealth inequality of Seattle using this same system of proportions? Could it help us wrap our heads around the immense scale of the wealth owned by a handful of local billionaires, including Seattle Art Fair founder Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos, the richest man on (actual) Planet Earth? I crunched some numbers to find out.
For starters, I went looking for the median household net worth for a family living in Seattle. This information proved tricky to find, but the mean net worth for a Seattle household, i.e. the arithmetic average, is $669,245. That number seems high, but it’s inflated due to both wealthy outliers (though none of the billionaires in question technically live within city limits) and skyrocketing home prices which have turned thousands of homeowners into millionaires simply for owning property. For this reason, it’s a useful indicator of the kind of wealth one would need to possess to be “average” in the Emerald City. It also makes our scale extremely conservative.
In astronomy, the distance between Earth and the Sun — 92.96 million miles, to be semi-precise—is known as an Astronomical Unit (AU). If we assign one AU to our “average” Seattle household, placing a family worth $669,245 on Earth, that means a household with a net worth of $484,079 would be living on Venus. (Sorry, if you’re worth less than $259,030, you don’t even make it to Mercury. Which is to say that the vast majority of the people I know in Seattle—mostly working artists—would live well inside the Gagosian booth according to this scale.)
To get a sense of the scale of the solar system, next I went looking for a “regular rich person” — someone worth a few modest millions. I discovered that Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is worth around $30 million. This puts him some 4.15 billion miles from the sun. His AU value is 45, which is to say that Russell Wilson is 45 times richer than our “average” Seattle family, who is also pretty rich.
For comparison, Pluto is 3.6 billion miles from the sun. If Pluto is in the Seattle Art Museum, Russell Wilson is about a block north of SAM at the Gum Wall, a local landmark that is also exactly what it sounds like.
If most of us don’t even make it to Mercury, and Russell Wilson is past Pluto, where does that put local billionaires Paul Allen, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos?
Let’s start with the man of the hour, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, owner of the Seattle Seahawks and the founder of the Seattle Art Fair. According to recent estimates, Paul Allen is worth around $25 billion. Using our scale model of the solar system, in which the “average” Seattle household is on Earth and Russell Wilson is just outside Pluto, Paul Allen would be some 3.47 trillion miles from the sun, i.e. somewhere in the inner Oort cloud.
When distances get this large, they are typically measured in light years. Paul Allen’s wealth puts him .59 light years away from the Sun, or 37,327 AU. Again, that means that he is 37,327 times as wealthy as the “average” Seattle household, which is significantly richer than the vast majority of people I know personally.
So if Russell Wilson is at the Gum Wall, where in this scale model is Paul Allen? Lace up your hiking boots, we’re going for a walk — some 964 miles northwest of the Sun in the Gagosian booth. For the sake of our graphic, let’s put him in the closest city: Ketchikan, Alaska (He’s actually about a hundred miles past it, between Ketchikan and Juneau, but what’s a hundred miles on this scale?)
Next up is Microsoft’s Bill Gates, whose net worth is an estimated $93.3 billion. This puts him 12.9 trillion miles from the sun, i.e. 2.2 light years or 138,769 AU away. On the Seattle street scale, he’s 3,583 miles from the Gagosian booth. Perhaps if we were to keep hiking (and took a nice icy swim across the Bering Strait), we would end up somewhere near Anadyr, Russia. (Здравствуйте!)
Finally, let’s map Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post. According to an article published last week by The Atlantic, Bezos is worth $150 billion, and would have to give away $28 million every single day (approximately Russell Wilson’s net worth) just to keep from gaining more wealth.
On the scale of the solar system, Jeff Bezos is 20.75 trillion miles from the sun. He is 3.53 light years, or 223,214 AU away. He is 223,214 times richer than the “average” Seattle household, which is 669,245 times richer than a renter living paycheck to paycheck.
For comparison, Alpha Centauri — the star system closest to our sun — is 4.37 light years, or 273,196.0 AU away.
Jeff Bezos is practically in another solar system.
If we scale Jeff Bezos’s wealth to the Chris Burden piece, that means we’re hiking 5,764 miles from the Gagosian booth to reach the end of his fortune. Where would we end up? Somewhere around Yakutsk, Russia.
In an interview earlier this year, Bezos said of his astronomical wealth, “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. That is basically it.”
It’s no wonder Jeff Bezos wants to go to space. It’s the only way he can visualize all of his money at once.
Bezos’s comments came off as extraordinarily tone-deaf to many people in Seattle, where housing affordability has reached a level of crisis. Back in May, Seattle’s city council voted unanimously to impose a small head tax on local companies that make more than $20 million a year. The tax was swiftly killed by a counter-initiative funded by powerful business interests, including Amazon, Starbucks, and Vulcan, Paul Allen’s privately held company.
In lieu of paying taxes, Paul Allen engages in high profile philanthropy, such as his pledge in April 2018 to spend $30 million (or the wealth of one Russell Wilson) to help offset Seattle’s homeless crisis. That sounds like a lot of money, but when we look at his wealth from space, it becomes clear that $30 million is only a few blocks on a thousand mile journey. (For comparison, this is proportional to the family that lives on Mercury donating about $300 to their favorite cause, or those of us living paycheck to paycheck buying someone a sandwich.)
Like the Seattle Art Fair (which is fun, and which I have written nice things about in previous years), philanthropy has the effect of improving Paul Allen’s “brand” while having a negligible impact on his overall wealth. This is an important function of philanthropy—it makes us dependent on billionaires for public services, which allows those billionaires, in turn, to write the laws governing how much more wealth they will be permitted to accumulate.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t enjoy the art fair, or any other blessings these billionaires decide to bestow on us. But we must be careful not to equate these pittances with economic justice.
If you find yourself at the Seattle Art Fair this weekend, I hope you’ll stop by the Gagosian booth and take a map of Chris Burden’s Scale Model of the Solar System, and then walk to the Seattle Art Museum if you are able. Then imagine yourself walking almost a thousand times that distance, or four thousand, or six thousand. And then ask yourself if this is the way you think a society ought to be structured, and if not, what you are going to do to help change it.