Too Much, September 25, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The 400 exceedingly wealthy individuals on the annual Forbes list now hold, as a group, nearly as much wealth as the poorer half of America's households. This has real consequences for public health.]

The only official arm of the United States government that systematically tracks the wealth of America's wealthy, the Federal Reserve, does not -- for privacy reasons -- count the wealth of America's very wealthiest. Thank goodness we have Forbes.

Every year, ever since 1982, this business magazine has assembled a research team that dives deep into the nation's business records to count the dollars of both exhibitionists eager to flaunt their wealth and the shy anxious to hide it.

The resulting annual list of America's richest 400 may not be absolutely accurate. But few people on the Forbes list, or left off it, ever end up complaining. In a world of imperfect information, the annual Forbes 400 numbers give us a reasonably accurate -- and intensely sobering -- look at our grotesquely unequal nation.

How grotesquely unequal?

Back in 1982, the year Forbes started publishing an annual list of America's 400 richest, the magazine could find only 13 billionaires in the entire United States. The nation's entire billionaire population could stand, quite comfortably, in a living room.

Not anymore. The just-released Forbes 400 list for 2006 includes, for the first time ever, only billionaires.

Together, these 400 billionaires own $1.25 trillion in total net worth.

Let's put this total in a more comprehensible context. In 2004, the most current year with stats available, the 56 million American families who make up the poorer half of America's wealth distribution had a total combined net worth of just $1.29 trillion.

In other words, our nation's richest 400 households own just about as much of our nation's treasure as our poorest 56 million.

That treasure appears to be concentrating at economic warp speed. In 1982, a deep-pocket in the United States needed a mere $90 million to enter the lofty ranks of the Forbes 400. In 2004, the price of admission stood at $750 million. On last year's Forbes list, the cut- off jumped to $900 million. This year's entry fee: a straight $1 billion.

Let's put that number in context, too. An average American could win, three times over, the biggest lottery jackpot ever -- the $315 million payout recorded in California last November -- and still need over $50 million more to knock on the Forbes 400 door.

This year's fastest-growing Forbes 400 fortune belongs, somewhat fittingly, to Sheldon Adelson, the CEO of the Las Vegas Sands, the global gambling industry giant. Worth $20.5 billion, this casino magnate holds the nation's third-largest fortune. Adelson's fortune, over the past two years, has grown at the rate of nearly $1 million an hour.