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The New Forbes 400 — and Their $1.5 Trillion

Research & Commentary
September 25, 2011


America’s 400 richest now hold a fortune almost as large as their 2007 pre-Great Recession record.

How swell a year have America’s 400 richest enjoyed over the past 12 months? This good: Google billionaires Sergey Brin and Larry Page each saw their personal fortunes jump by $1.7 billion over the year — and each has slipped five slots in the just-published latest edition of the Forbes 400.

Forbes has been publishing an annual list of America’s 400 richest ever since 1982. Wealth in America, interestingly, began hyper concentrating at about the same year. So Forbes, in effect, has been providing a valuable public service. Thanks to Forbes, we’ve all been able to track just how phenomenally wealthy America’s mega wealthy have become.

Forbes, year in and year out, does a wonderfully thorough job of gauging the individual fortunes of America’s most fortunate. For this year’s list, the magazine interviewed 97 billionaires — and knowledgeable observers whose ranks even included ex-spouses. Public records helped fill out this latest Forbes portrait.

The basic numbers from all this research: As of the end of last month, August 26 to be exact, America’s top 400 held a combined $1.53 trillion in personal wealth, a total 12 percent up from last year — and not that far off the top 400 all-time high, $1.57 trillion, set in 2007, the year before the Great Recession hit.

These massive numbers impress. But we need some historical perspective to really appreciate their magnitude. Try this: Back in 1982, an American of means needed at least $75 million to enter the ranks of the Forbes 400. The entry threshold for the current 2011 list: $1.05 billion.[pullquote]Every deep pocket on this year’s Forbes 400 list ranks as a billionaire. The first Forbes list in 1982 sported only 13 billionaires.[/pullquote]

In other words, every deep pocket on this year’s Forbes 400 list ranks as a billionaire. That first 1982 list sported only 13 billionaires.

Now these comparisons, to be sure, don’t take inflation into account. What happens when we adjust for inflation? The incredible concentration of America’s wealth still shines through just as clearly.

The single richest American on the 1982 list, shipping and oil magnate Daniel Ludwig, held a personal fortune of $2 billion, the equivalent of $4.7 billion today. On the 2011 Forbes 400 list, a $4.7 billion fortune rates only a 66th place tie.

The $230.8 million average Forbes 400 fortune in 1982 — an inflation-adjusted $540.4 million today — wouldn’t even be enough to make this year’s top 400. In fact, $540.4 million today only gets a deep pocket halfway to top 400 status.

One more sobering statistical observation: Between 1982 and 2011, the total combined fortunes on the Forbes 400 list have soared — after taking inflation into account — an eye-popping 612 percent.

To add a little levity to this year’s top 400 coverage, Forbes is running a sidebar on “When Really Rich People Do Really Stupid Things,” a series of chuckles at rich people’s expense gathered from the records of the Chartis insurance company. Can you believe that one mega rich dunce set his Porsche on fire trying to dry a rear-seat floor mat with a leaf blower?

But the ultimate joke, the Economic Policy Institute’s Larry Mishel noted earlier this month, may be on us.

Sign up for To MuchBetween 1983 and 2009, Mishel reports, America’s richest 5 percent grabbed 82 percent of all the nation’s gains in wealth. The nation’s bottom 60 percent of households “actually had less wealth in 2009 than in 1983.”

Americans, in short, have tolerated a massive redistribution of America’s wealth, from middle and bottom to top. In the process, we have tanked — for millions of Americans — the American dream. That surely qualifies, by any benchmark, as a “really stupid thing.”

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