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What a viral headline about Jeff Bezos becoming a trillionaire gets right and wrong

The study saying Bezos will be a trillionaire is bogus, but the criticism of Bezos it prompted is real.

Jeff Bezos shaking hands with Kim Kardashian West.
Jeff Bezos attends the 2019 Met Gala on May 6, 2019, in New York City.
Kevin Mazur/MG19/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue

No, Jeff Bezos is not about to become a trillionaire.

On Thursday a few news outlets re-aggregated a months-old, flimsy projection from a “small business advice platform.” By midday, leading progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) were tweeting that Bezos “is on track to become the world’s first trillionaire in the middle of a pandemic.”

The dust-up — as untethered from reality as it may be — was a reminder of just how angry many on the left are about the tech elite’s wealth and how much the founder of Amazon has become a caricature for the country’s billionaire class. Bezos has become an easy punching bag and will remain one even if he doesn’t become a trillionaire.

Even during the market calamity the coronavirus pandemic has caused, Bezos has consistently been one of the few exceptions in the billionaire class who has been in the green. Amazon is more essential than ever, and its stock is up 25 percent this year, as is Bezos’s net worth. That success, while the economy craters, made him a target for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as well Thursday.

Bezos has become a household name over the last few years, and especially so since he became the world’s wealthiest person. That distinction has thrust him into the spotlight, often uncomfortably, and made for unfriendly contrasts when juxtaposed against, say, working-class Amazon warehouse workers who say their employer hasn’t been compensating them enough or doing enough to protect them from exposure to the coronavirus.

That might also explain why an overblown prediction went viral at this moment. Internal tensions at Amazon now involve its corporate workforce and are growing, as is Bezos’s net worth, which now stands at around $144 billion.

Bezos’s wealth is closely tied to Amazon, which he founded in 1994 and of which he owns about 11 percent. Amazon’s stock has been on a bull run over the last five years, growing by about 560 percent. And Bezos’s net worth has closely followed. Back in May 2015, he was worth $38.3 billion.

The climb in Bezos’s net worth is even more extraordinary given that he signed the world’s largest divorce settlement ever last year for $35 billion when he split with his then-wife, MacKenzie. But that loss was quickly recouped by Amazon’s bull run.

Bezos isn’t alone. Billionaire founders of companies that are on hot streaks have seen their net worths skyrocket as the stock market boomed over the last decade, even for those who pledged to begin giving away all their money in their lifetimes. The rich also often get richer, in general, because they have better access to unique investment opportunities that the average American does not, further insulating them from economic downturns.

That brings us back to the viral projection about Bezos’s wealth, prepared by a company called Comparisun. The methodology for its startling claim? It calculated each billionaire’s average growth in their net worth over the last five years and projected how much they would increase if they continued to grow at that rate.

So basically: If Amazon has another five years like its last five years, then Jeff Bezos, Comparisun claims, would be the world’s first trillionaire in 2026.

That projection makes a lot of assumptions. The American economy has been on a decade-long trajectory of strong growth that won’t replicate easily. Past performance, as the saying goes, isn’t indicative of future performance, especially given that mature companies don’t typically grow at the same rate younger companies do. Amazon is likely to continue its meteoric growth, but saying that Bezos is “on track” to reach nrillionaire status is quite a stretch.

After all, the methodology essentially suggests that if you find a $100 bill on a sidewalk — and if it took you a single second to find it — then, hey, you might become a trillionaire before Jeff Bezos.

2026 is a long time away. Bezos will probably still be doing just fine — and he’ll probably remain a symbol for the grotesquely rich, trillionaire or not.