The shifting meaning of “millionaire”

by Andrew Gelman on December 5, 2010 · 9 comments

in Political Economy

It used to be that a millionaire was someone with million dollars. Nowadays, though, the term is often used to refer to people who make a million dollars a year. (See here, for example, in a discussion of the so-called millionaire’s tax break.. I guess it makes sense—lots of Americans have a million dollars in assets, and so for “millionaire” to keep its traditional meaning of “really rich,” it had to shift somehow. It still seems funny to me, that this change in definition has occurred without it being formally acknowledged.

P.S. Also, could people please try to be clear on what it means when a bill “failed by a vote of 53-36” in the Senate? I first read this as: the bill received 53 No votes and 36 Yes votes. But, looking carefully, I think what they meant was that it received 53 Yes votes but was filibustered.

{ 9 comments }

Josh December 6, 2010 at 9:01 am

Your hunch is right. When they say “the bill failed 53-36″ they really mean to say cloture was not invoked. Determining whether this was a filibuster or not gets difficult at this juncture. Cloture votes don’t necessarily indicate a filibuster. Rather, they have become more of a formality to move to vote on a bill. In today’s Senate, most bills of moderate importance are required to invoke cloture despite the lack of a “formal” filibuster.

Aaron S. Veenstra December 6, 2010 at 11:59 am

An interesting corollary: I’m pretty sure “billionaire” hasn’t changed in this way, since there basically wouldn’t be any if being one meant an annual income of a billion dollars.

Andrew Gelman December 6, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Aaron:

Good point. The ratio of “billionaire” to “millionaire” is no longer 1000.

Anono December 6, 2010 at 8:57 pm

Aaron:

Actually, in the last few years, a few people with billion $/year incomes have appeared. Take the top of the Forbes billionaires list and compare year by year. A few of them really do make more than 1 billion/year.

beejeez December 6, 2010 at 10:53 pm

Lots of Americans have a million dollars in assets? Like “Lots of Americans are unemployed” lots? Or “Lots of NBA players are millionaires” lots?

Samantha December 7, 2010 at 10:29 am

If you exclude primary residence, two studies of high net worth individuals, Capgemini/ML and Spectrem Group, pegs the number of investable asset millionaires at 2.5 to 5 million Americans, hovering around 1% of the US population. Is that lots? Of course if you include the primary residence the number of millionaires increases.

Andrew Gelman December 7, 2010 at 2:40 pm

Samantha:

I don’t know why you’d exclude primary residences.

Andrew Gelman December 7, 2010 at 2:41 pm

In any case, yes, I’d say that several million is “lots.”

Sasha December 7, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Also, could people please try to be clear on what it means when a bill “failed by a vote of 53-36″ in the Senate? I first read this as: the bill received 53 No votes and 36 Yes votes. But, looking carefully, I think what they meant was that it received 53 Yes votes but was filibustered.

You know that’s the point, right?

So long as the citizenry at large are told (and believe) the bill “failed”, the GOP won’t be lambasted for “obstructing”, “preventing”, or “blocking” it.

Curiously, the latter descriptions were used whenever the then-minority Dems filibustered GOP initiatives.

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