How much land or how many homes should one actor be allowed to own?

A recent fact check highlighted how much property several American actors owned:

Photo by Jahoo Clouseau on

“Bill Gates is buying up the majority of American farmland and BlackRock is buying the majority of single family houses but I’m supposed to believe the biggest threat to us is Elon Musk buying Twitter?,” read a Twitter post that was liked or shared more than 250,000 times.

But Gates doesn’t own more than 50% of U.S. farmland, according to The Associated Press. Even with recent purchases, he owns less than 1% of the nation’s farmland.

Gates, with 269,000 acres, is considered the largest private owner of farmland in the country. But his share is a small percentage of the nearly 900 million acres of U.S. farmland, according to the Department of Agriculture

Also, BlackRock does not own a majority of U.S. single-family homes, the AP said.

How much property ownership is too much? Putting the amount of land or property into percentages is one way to think about it. Gates owns less than 1% of the farmland, BlackRock owns under 50% of the homes. The first figure suggests Gates barely owns anything while the second number is not a great one to note since I suspect owning 49% would not assuage those who retweeted this (and the likely figure is way under 10%).

Putting the ownership in absolute numbers might make a different argument. Gates owns 269,000 acres. That sounds like a lot, even in a big country in the United States. Or, if someone said BlackRock owns 60,000 homes, that would sound like a lot, even in a country with many more homes than that.

But, before we decide what numbers to use, we have to know what the concern is: should someone own 1% of the farmland? Should a company own tens of thousands of homes? The numbers can help illuminate the situation but they cannot answer the moral and ethical questions of just how much should one person or organization own? Using big or shocking numbers (even if they are incorrect) to suggest people should pay attention to a particular social problem is not new.

Example of problems with statistics “nearly 1,500 millionaires” (out of more than 235,000) “paid no federal taxes”

Statistics can be used well and they can be used not so well. Here is an example where the headline statistic suggests something different from the rest of the story:

Of an already small pool of millionaires and billionaires, 1,470 didn’t pay any federal income taxes in 2009, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

Just over 0.1% of taxpayers — or 8,274 out of 140 million total — made more than $10 million in 2009, according to the agency. More than 235,000 taxpayers earned $1 million or more, according to a recent report from the agency.

But of the high earners who avoided paying income taxes, many did so due to heavy charity donations or foreign investments.

About 46% of all American households won’t pay federal income tax in 2011, many due to low income, tax credits for child care and exemptions, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

The headline makes it sound like there are a lot of millionaires who are avoiding paying taxes. The actual percentage hinted at it in the story suggests something else: less than 0.63% of all millionaires (1,470/235,000 – less than 1 in a 100)) paid no taxes. In the midst of a political debate about whether to raise taxes for the wealthy in America, each side could grab on to factual yet different figures: the 1,500 figure sounds high like the country is missing out on a lot money while the 0.63% figure suggests almost all pay some taxes. It wouldn’t take much to include both figures, the actual number and the percentage in the story.

Examples like this help contribute to the reaction some people have when they see statistics in the media: how can I trust any of them if they will just use the figures that suit them? All statistics become suspect and it is then hard to get a handle on what is going on in the world.