This post was originally published on St. Louis American

The news of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter had many people wringing their hands in consternation of what this will mean for the social media platform.

Count me among those concerned about how Musk could change the platform to allow hate speech, harassment, etc., to flourish on Twitter as he strictly adheres to his belief in freedom of speech.

It’s here that I note free speech doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences to that speech. Another point that often gets lost in the free speech conversation, is “freedom of speech” as it’s referred to in the First Amendment applies to government. Government can’t punish people for criticizing it — except in certain situations such as sedition. Private individuals, organizations and businesses can tell you to hush, and Twitter can ban you (for now).

Obviously, the First Amendment is important to me, but this column isn’t about that. I’m more concerned with the inequality of wealth that Musk’s purchase of Twitter has highlighted.

Musk, the richest person in the world — around $273 billion — owns Tesla and SpaceX. How many zeroes are in $273 billion? The number is as unreal as Puff the Magic Dragon to me.

That many of us talk about billions like it is thousands lets me know I’m not alone in my inability to understand just how much money that is. This might help: $1 billion is 1,000 suitcases filled with $1 million each.

I remember a friend asked people what they would do if they won say $500 million. The answers were buying a house, a car and save the rest. When she said, but you have $500 million, they’d think about it and say they’d buy a house for their parents or children. My point? Most of us don’t have any concept of $500 million let alone $273 billion. Because we have a lot of thousand-aires in this country, we may miss the reality that wealth inequality exists.

It’s bigger than the racial wealth gap. White Americans need to know there’s a wealth gap that affects them as well. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but chances are you’re not among the 0.00001% of the richest Americans, which is about 18 households. They had an average net worth of about $66 billion each in 2020, according to a study by economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman.

According to a New York Times article, “Since 1980, the incomes of the very rich have grown faster than the economy. The upper middle class has kept pace with the economy, while the middle class and poor have fallen behind.” 

Wealth and income are divided into the top 1%, the bottom 90% and the upper middle class, which earns between $120,000 to $425,000 after taxes, makes up the 90th to 99th percentiles of income distribution.

The data is sobering, especially when you think about the disdain Americans have for those living in poverty, and how many of us believe we’re middle class to upper middle class. I know many of us believe one day, we, too, will become a billionaire, but you probably won’t. If it were easily attainable, there would be more.

This data shouldn’t just give you a jolt of reality; it should also make you want to do something about massive wealth inequality and what that means for the majority. We live in a country that espouses majority rules, however, when it comes to wealth, the minority rules. The uber rich — think the Koch brothers, Bill Gates and Melinda Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg — wield an inordinate amount of power and political influence in our country.

Whether these people use their money, power, and influence for good or bad is a matter of perspective and irrelevant. The American press has made a big deal out of Russian oligarchs (an extraordinarily rich business leader with a great deal of political influence) but says little about the equivalent in the U.S.A.

We’ve been lulled to sleep by the American dream — a dream that won’t actualize for most Americans.