Grand Duchess Olga and her husband, Prince Peter – 1901
Well Forbes magazine published it’s list of the 400 richest Americans this week And yes, as you suspect, they had another good year. And yes, you and I are not on the list. I checked.
Surging tech stocks upended ranks near the stratosphere of The Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans this year. Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg both zoomed into the top 10 richest for the first time. Bezos, the biggest gainer on the list, up $16.5 billion in one year, is now the fourth richest American, worth $47 billion. Zuckerberg is number seven, with a net worth of $40.3 billion. A rise in Nike shares lifted founder Phil Knight, age 77, back into the top 20 for the first time in 18 years.
The top 400 now have a combined net worth of $2.34 trillion (that’s trillion with a a “t” ) – equal to the gross national product of Brazil – a nation of 200 million people . The 400 have more money than the bottom half of all Americans combined.
On top of what they’ve already got, they made lots more. The 400 added $50 billion to their combined stash. Meanwhile the median income of the rest of America fell again last year.
The price of admission was up again for the richest – you need $1.7 billion to make the list (up from $1.55 billion last year) while the average wealth on the list is an astounding $5.8 billion. The price of admission is now so high that 145 U.S. billionaires didn’t make the cut. Tsk tsk.
As Old Blue Eyes used to sing – “It was a very good year”.
The usual suspects populate the list.
Bill Gates is still #1 for the 22nd straight year at $76 billion down $4 bullion from last year and now only $14 billion ahead of #2 Warren Buffet.
The top ten round out with Larry Ellison (Oracle), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Charlie Koch, David Koch, Mark Zuckerberg, Mike Bloomberg, Jim Walton and Larry Page (Google).
The wealth is even more concentrated than it first appears; there are two Koch brothers in the top ten, three Mars family members four Waltons in the top twenty.
What is the common thread among the top 400? What is illuminating is not so much who was on the list but what they collectively tell us about the state of the richest of the rich. Thirty two years ago, when Forbes published its first Forbes 400, a net worth of $75 million would get you on the list. Today it takes $1.7 billion. And the 400 added $50 billion to their stash last year.
Meanwhile, median household income in the United States peaked at around $57,000 in 1999; the Census Bureau estimates that median household income in 2013 was $54,462, falling to $53,657 in 2014.
One would be hard pressed to find a clearer example of how powerfully income inequality has taken root.
The fundamental reason these folks continue to get so rich is that the vast majority of their “income” is from investments and capital gains – taxed at the capital gains rate of 15%. Their “income” is not like your “income” on that W-2 form. Their income is better than your income ‘cause it “helps create jobs”. Right.
Yet take comfort ye ordinary folk. Emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote “Remember this – it takes very little to make a happy life”.
Our billionaires on the Forbes list have more money than they can ever spend and more than enough for their families for generations to come. Many of them (not all) are totally preoccupied with making more at the expense of virtually everything else.
When does such avarice and ambition become obscene?
Tens of millions are driving their broken down cars and can’t replace their worn out couch or see a doctor. Yet too many of our billionaires and wannabees work relentlessly and tirelessly to lower their taxes, eliminate any estate tax, eliminate social security, eliminate medicare etc. More! More! More!
Such grasping materialism is the very definition of obscenity and should carry the stigma of shame. Except it doesn’t.
On the other hand, Steinbeck wrote “When the majority of people are hungry they will take by force what they need; when property accumulates in the hands of too few it is taken away. How can you frighten a man whose hunger is in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t, because he knows a fear beyond any other”
The Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, daughter of a Tsar and sister to Tsar Nicholas II grew up in a palace and, after it was all swept away, died in an apartment over a beauty shoppe on Garrard Street East in Toronto. She, her family and her class remained willfully deaf to the cries of “Peace! Bread! Land!”.
History will reveal whether or not our aristocracy is just as deaf.
Contentment and remembrance lies not in possessions. It is in knowing you have lived a good and honorable life.