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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Richie Rich

Picked up "The Ultra Rich: How Much Is Too Much?" by Vance Packard – published in 1989. In my life that doesn't seem so far back, but in the modern history of U.S. wealth, it appears to be ancient history. He writes about the years just after Forbes Magazine started publishing their annual "Richest 400 Americans."

In 1982, there were 14 U.S. billionaires and five years later there were 49. I see that in this year's list, every single one of the richest 400 Americans had at least 1.3 billion dollars.

Packard writes that in 1983, the Joint Economic Committee of Congress did a study that estimated the top 1% of wealthy Americans had 34% of all the wealth. That meant one out of every 100 people feast on one third of the pie. It's closer to 43% of the pie when you subtract the value of people's homes and just look at their other wealth. The good news is that ratio has stayed relatively stable these 25 years, but it's so incredibly disproportionate to begin with.

In 1987, the Forbes #1 was Sam Walton of Wal-Mart with an estimated 8.7 billion. In the 2011 Forbes list the Walton wealth has passed on to the Walton "children" and their collective wealth is $90 Billion Dollars. An increase of 81 billion dollars in 24 years! Packard quotes billionaire, Edgar Bronfman, "To turn $100 into $110 is work. To turn $100 million into $110 million is inevitable."

In 2010, the combined wealth of the Forbes 400 was 1.27 TRILLION dollars. That's more than the combined wealth of the lower 60% of Americans ($1.22 trillion for the lower 60%, according to a March 2010 study by Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University). My guess is that most Americans would be shocked to know that the lower 40% of U.S. citizens - 120 million people - account for only 3/10's of one percent of the country's wealth. (Source: Norton & Ariely, 2010.)

According to Forbes, nearly half of the 45 new members in the 2011 class, made their fortunes in hedge funds and private equity. I still can't fathom how much harder they work than a passionate high school teacher, or a doctor in an emergency room, to merit all that reward.

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