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March 07, 2011

The Forbes 400 vs. Everyone Else

This is interesting:

According to the most recent information, the Forbes 400 now have a greater net worth than the bottom 50% of U.S. households combined.

In 2009, the total net worth of the Forbes 400 was $1.27 trillion.

The best information now available shows that in 2009 the bottom 60% (not 50%) of U.S. households owned only 2.3% of total U.S. wealth. U.S. household net worth at the time the Forbes list came out was $53.15 trillion. So the bottom 60% of households possessed $1.22 Trillion, less than the Forbes 400.

Thus the Forbes 400 unquestionably have more wealth than the bottom 50%.

By contrast, in 2007 the bottom 50% of U.S. households owned slightly more wealth than the Forbes 400; the economic meltdown has hurt the bottom far more than the top. (And in fact, in 2010 the net worth of the Forbes 400 jumped to $1.37 trillion.)


1. Total net worth of Forbes 400, 2009: Forbes

2. Total net worth of United States, third quarter of 2009: Federal Reserve, p. 1

3. Total net worth of bottom 60% of U.S. households, 2009: Edward Wolff, p. 33

Wolff is the top academic expert on economic inequality in the U.S. He writes:

"Trends in inequality [from 2007 to mid-2009] ... show a fairly steep rise in wealth inequality ... The share of the top 1 percent advanced from 34.6 to 37.1 percent, that of the top 5 percent from 61.8 to 65 percent, and that of the top quintile from 85 to 87.7 percent, while that of the second quintile fell from 10.9 to 10 percent, that of the middle quintile from 4 to 3.1 percent, and that of the bottom two quintiles from 0.2 to -0.8 percent."

4. Total net worth of bottom 50% of U.S. households, 2007: Federal Reserve, p. 35

5. Total net worth of Forbes 400, 2007: Forbes

6. Total net worth of Forbes 400, 2010: Forbes

Posted at March 7, 2011 05:57 PM

310,000,000 v. 400, what's THAT tell ya???

Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 7, 2011 06:53 PM

Some of my schoolmates informed me a week or so back, that were income to be evenly redistributed in our society, "in 70 years the same people would be millionaires again and the same people would be poor."

I wasn't sure what that 'same people' business meant -- don't most wealth-holding adults die in 70 years? -- so I figured the implication was cultural (e.g. religion) and perhaps racist. At the least, I saw how they (many of whom would like full-time employment but cannot get it) really believe that money equals ethical merit.

Posted by: Cloud at March 7, 2011 08:53 PM

"This outlook, no less common today, is summed up in the significant American expression 'to make good'."
-- Orwell

Posted by: Cloud at March 7, 2011 08:56 PM

It's not as bad as Mike Meyer sez - there are only 106 million households in the US. That's a ratio of only 262,500 households : 1 billionaire.

I mean, basically, it's just like if we took, oh, every person in the city in which I am currently sitting (Washington, DC), and gave everything all of us own to just one person.

Seems fair to me. I nominate.....myself.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at March 7, 2011 10:34 PM

This is an important post. Kevin Phillips wrote a book, Wealth and Democracy, about this.

And Edward Nathan Wolff, professor at NYU, has a number of learned articles and books on the subject available as scans online:

Some young revolutionary thinker out there in sync with the superpresent (somebody who doesn't remember life before PCs and Macs, for example) needs to figure out how to turn the socialist/communist/democratic ideal into a new working theory with enough mass appeal to really bring people together--i.e., update the anarchists and Marxists and utopians for the 21st century--or the world is going to be a hell of a stinking rotten dystopia. This trend towards super concentration of wealth doesn't seem to be slowing down much, with all the nasty side effects social theory predicts.

Posted by: N E at March 7, 2011 11:11 PM

a nice chart about why americans put up with this


Posted by: hapa at March 8, 2011 02:10 AM

the info at mother jones is really good and user friendly

thanks hapa

Posted by: N E at March 8, 2011 07:07 AM

Well it's a little like the battle of Thermopylae I guess.

Posted by: seth at March 8, 2011 12:16 PM


I would like to expand on your observation if you don't mind: people who would like full time employment equate ethical merit with wealth. There are significant pressures substantiating this belief.

For several people full time employment has a great impact on the most basic of human needs (food, shelter, clothing). For someone in that situation it is not inconceivable that the issue is one of (or maybe akin to) life and death. For these people, their lives is dependent on the acquisition of income sufficient for survival.

Someone for whom the message "your ability to survive is dependent on your ability to acquire wealth," it is likely that that person will make the moral equivalence between the ability to acquire wealth and any notion of self worth, especially the right to life.

This process is self selecting too, as I am finding out. Someone who needs full employment to survive who doesn't equate income and wealth with self worth will not try as hard to obtain wealth. In a situation of positive unemployment rates this person will be out worked for achieving work and may not find it. This person runs a greater risk of death as a result, taking his or her perspective with him or her though there will undoubtedly be others who will have the same perspective.

The belief you speak of are self re-enforcing, personally and socially damaging, and mortally encouraged in this society.


This concentration of wealth is nothing new. It is nothing new in concept and I would be surprised if it was new in degree. In any capitalist society political power and wealth are self reinforcing (the more of one, one has the more of the other one has) thus in a society in which those who don't have wealth fail to politically (either within or without the government) advance themselves, the concentration of wealth will always advance. It is only when a broad spectrum of a population demands fair treatment (however they do so) that concentration of wealth declines.

The technology of the last 30 years doesn't change this base dynamic; it just offers anybody different tools to have social effect. This new technology is being used far more to divide people from one another and to destroy notions of community necessary to effect a decline in wealth concentration. At the same time these technologies have the potential to do the opposite but they are not being utilized in that fashion.

At some point community will form and wealth concentration will decline. I have no idea how and I have no idea what will happen in the meantime.

Posted by: Benjamin Arthur Schwab at March 8, 2011 01:17 PM

Or as the Medici put it, "money to get power, power to protect money."

Orwelll's understanding has also been supplanted. Thanks to the neo-libs, it's now the case that one takes risks for the opportunity to *earn* a living. Winning!

Posted by: lurking gnome at March 8, 2011 05:44 PM

Benjamin Arthur Schwab

The current concentration of wealth is 'new' in degree, but you're right that it is of course also extremely 'old.' What is nonetheless clear is that there has been a return to old shocking degrees of inequality in a new market-dominated society during the last several decades, and in that new, market-dominated society the old restraints on the viciousness of economic excesses have been greatly weakened. That is a big, big deal.

When they first appeared, industrial capitalism and market relations were a massive assault on human society as it then existed. You can read the old maestro Marx's writings on commodity fetishism to get a brilliant and creative analysis of that change, written from the perspective of Marx's thought, but I would recommend first Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation, written much later (just after WWII). That is in my opinion a fabulous book even though libertarians can't seem to make heads or tails of it. (Society, community--what the hell are they?)

Society protected itself in the past more than corporations have led us to think. Now society has been atomized and people have been reduced to being consumers. Well, ask yourself, what is the worth of a consumer who has no money?

Don't neglect history, because the devil is in the details. Although you're right that much about inequality is common across the ages, the changes that have occurred in the last half century have brought something new upon us. Most of the old social and communal bonds that offered at least some protection from economic devastation have been cut, and even nationalism doesn't really offer much protection now. Ironically, the rage against this state of affairs has been manipulated through the Tea Party to strengthen the very evils that gave rise to that rage.

What is slouching toward us out of the desert looks like Progress because it wears the seductive mask of glitzy corporate marketing and technology, and it disguises itself as freedom, but behind that mask are claws and teeth sharper than any history has yet shown humanity. That's what the statistics so dryly evidence.

Don't assume that all will turn out well and that there will be a counteradjustment. That can't be taken for granted. The first great premise of enlightened social thought at the dawn of the Rennaisance was that people make history by their own actions. But that remains true only if we act.

Posted by: N E at March 8, 2011 07:12 PM

Yikes, that second part needed context. Must...Edit...More...

Posted by: lurking gnome at March 8, 2011 07:19 PM

I'll see that Yeats reference and raise a Chekhov's gun: the hydrogen bomb which was hanging on the wall in Act I of the postwar era and has not gone off yet.

No doubt some large fraction of those Forbes 400ers and their hangers-on optimistically believe that globalized business relations will head off another war between the great powers. But I'm sure their sort believed the same thing circa 1910.

Posted by: Cloud at March 8, 2011 08:35 PM

Say, My point was 310,000,000/408 ratio. Taking Aaron Datesman's point of actual households in mind as to accessibility, what if the whole country were divided into random groups of about 900,000 people, Americans, and each group is given one of 408 names for a group project.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 8, 2011 11:41 PM

Mike Meyer - right on.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at March 9, 2011 10:30 AM

I recall that came up in Michael Moore's speech (perhaps your original source?): "Today just 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all Americans combined. Let me say that again. 400 obscenely rich people most of whom benefited in some way from the multi-trillion dollar taxpayer bailout of 2008 now have more loot stock and property than the assets of 155 million Americans combined. If you can’t bring yourself to call that a financial coup detat, then you are simply not being honest about what you know in your heart to be true."

My suspicions were correct: that the left has no idea what they're doing in this country. If you're going to commentate and refuse thanks, the least you could do is accurately (that's a part of "being honest") cite the statistic -- the one that doesn't actually apply to "all Americans," but to the richest and the poorest. This should apply especially to Moore who chides the media for censoring class-related issues.

Posted by: LT at March 9, 2011 01:57 PM

408 websites, sell tickets. They could be the "WE are interested in YOU, Mr. Billionaire, fan clubs". "Giving is OUR motto."

Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 9, 2011 07:25 PM

Yes, but what is wrong with that level of disparity?

What level of disparity would you be willing to tolerate? Zero? Or are you willing to tolerate something non-zero? But then, where does one draw the line?

At least we're talking about relative poverty right? Not absolute poverty. And at least we're talking about poor Yanks who still have 40" TVs, a car and clean running water and garbage disposal.

Is there something intrinsically imoral with the unequal distribution of wealth on this planet? Why? Would you be happy with equal opportunities for all and let the chips fall where they may?

Just asking, is all.

Posted by: Not Errol Flynn at March 10, 2011 02:07 PM

To determine a non-destructive level of wealth disparity, we might consider under what conditions, if any, "phase changes" -- analogous to water turning to steam -- occur in our present cultural-economic society.

If money is simply a marker for real wealth, the manipulation of money has different consequences when the majority of money is controlled by a few persons rather than being controlled by many.

Our present system in the US -- where the economic value of increased efficiency accrues only to the owners of capital, and consumption rather than leisure determines economic value -- is just one of several possibilities.

Scandinavian model for instance, is examined from a neo-Austrian standpoint here:

And what Sweden is doing now is interesting:

The people of Scandinavia have a history, demographics, and sense of themselves that informs their understanding of possibility differently from those here in the US.

Posted by: Suuri at March 10, 2011 04:52 PM

N. Flynn:

I can only speak for myself but in the long run I don't care at all about wealth disparity but rather I would like to live in a society in which the amount of wealth one has only matters in trivial aspects. We do not live in that society.

As things stand right now, in a nation as wealthy as the United States, people die from want. That alone is enough to tell me that the level of wealth disparity in the United States is too great and that it needs to change. Once people stop dying from want I will look at the situation then and try to make a determination. In any case it would be better then the situation today.

It is also clear that in the US society today there are not equal opportunities. If there were maybe I could comment on the society but there are theoretical societies with equal opportunities that I would think akin to paradise and others I would claim are dystopias.

Posted by: Benjamin Arthur Schwab at March 10, 2011 05:51 PM