That’s one hundred-millionth. Or 1/100,000,000. Or 1 E −8 (one times ten to the negative eight power). I’m thinking about this little tiny bit—a millionth percent—because of the stock market. I own some stocks and it’s a different kind of thing than owning a car or a house. I have twenty shares of Chevron Corporation, for example. Well, it’s a little more than that because I have a DRIP (dividend reinvestment plan) and the money I make goes back into buying shares. I have acquired 1.867 new shares since the first twenty. I guess that means I buy them in lots of 0.001 share or something, I don’t know! Anyway, I was curious: how many shares of Chevron are there in the world?
According to this NASDAQ site there are 1,910,520,000 outstanding shares of common stock. That’s a messy number and I’m rounding it off to two billion. I don’t know if Chevron has preferred stocks or not, and I assume they have bondholders who must “own” a part of the corporation, so rounding up seems reasonable. I don’t know a thing about corporate finance but I’m guessing there’s more to wealth than just the shares of common stock. But I digress. I wanted to know how much of the Chevron Corporation I “owned” with my 21.867 shares. If I make that 20 the calculation is easy. Twenty divided by two billion is 0.00000001 (0.000001%), or one hundred-millionth part (one-millionth percent).
That’s a pretty small piece of a rather big pie. The company lists $250 billion in assets. That sits in between the GDPs of Ireland ($300B) and New Zealand ($185B). A new aircraft carrier costs $13B or so, so $250B could get you about twenty of them! But I’m not here to pick on Chevron, just trying to get a handle on these numbers. After all, I’m a hundred-millionth part of them so I should have my say on things. And I suppose I do via proxies, but it’s rather remote. And I imagine those folks with much bigger pieces of the pie are perhaps more able to influence the company.
My vanishingly small fraction won’t make me rich. It’s so small of a piece that it matters not who actually owns it. Some day I’ll sell the shares (at a profit, I hope) and someone else can own them. Chevron will go on without me. My vanishingly small fraction protects me from the company as well. If they get sued for being assholes somewhere it won’t touch me. The stocks might go down in value but I’ll be insulated from any consequences because I’m just a hair on a gnat on the back of a huge beast. This, I suppose, is how it is supposed to work. By spreading out the ownership you spread out the liability, and thus the company can take risks in their quest to make money.
I suppose if Chevron is fouling the Amazon or the Ecuadorian rain forest or something I’m only 1/100,000,000th responsible so you can’t blame me. I just tagged along for the ride, it’s not my fault. They promised me some money on this deal, man. I mean, I’m lucky if I hit 75 kilos dripping wet. One hundred-millionth of me is a snowflake. A few grains of sand. If you want your pound of flesh from me come and get it, I won’t notice.
I started out trying to think about owning something. Owning part of Chevron is not like owning a bicycle. Chevron is kind of like a bicycle, though. A bicycle needs to be rolling to stay upright, it will fall over if it isn’t moving at a sufficient speed. The rider needs to keep the energy stream flowing. Chevron has debtors and shareholders to pay and they have to have sufficient revenue to do that. They have to keep the income stream flowing or the whole thing falls apart. They certainly don’t want that to happen. So they keep drilling for oil and refining it and selling gasoline (which I buy) and whatever else they do. Because they, in essence, have promised their “owners” that they would.
The modest few shekels I’ve invested in Chevron won’t bankrupt me if I lose them. But I’d prefer to see them grow. If I prosper then I can spend money and other people can prosper, too. I won’t be entirely responsible for their prosperity of course, just a vanishingly small fraction of it. And it’s not entirely true that what’s good for Chevron is good for me. In fact, they often are at cross-purposes to what is good for me (and potentially many others). It seems to me it would be good business for Chevron to invest in cleaner technologies and other energy sources besides oil. It seems like it would be good business to extract resources and manufacture products safely and sustainably.
And it is. Over the long term. In the short term it’s often easier just to make a profit and worry about pollution, for example, down the road. With seven billion of us now I think we are already down that road a long way. Our corporations have inordinate political power and they can set the agenda to suit a narrow, entirely economic outlook. Nothing like high quarterly earnings to make people happy. I want our energy and transportation infrastructure to thrive and evolve. I want to see innovation and increased efficiency. I want to see new solutions developed and dispersed. That takes capital and expertise, two things outfits like Chevron have a lot of. We need our corporations to widen their outlooks to include things like quality of life and the conservation and wise use of resources. Money is good, but it is not everything. Note the root eco- in both “economy” and “ecology.” It’s Greek for “house” (oikos), and we are always being told to get our houses in order, am I right?
So, I’m casting my millionth-percent ballot for a more ecologically-minded future from our corporate overlords.
I’ll just have to write really small.