Tracking Inequality

Census Time for Billionaires

The world’s super-duper rich, in the new Forbes magazine count, total just over 1,000 — and hold more wealth than half of humanity.

By Sam Pizzigati

The annual billionaire issue of Forbes magazine, published earlier this week, has a bit of everything. You can thumb these pages, in print or online, and find out how much billionaires pay for opera tickets in Moscow ($1,300 for a box at the Bolshoi) or a haircut in Los Angeles ($750 at the Frédéric Fekkai Salon).

You can learn, from the new Forbes, the trick to pricing mansions or identify all the world’s billionaire bachelors. You can even figure out whether you’re born to be a billionaire yourself. You simply need, says Forbes, guts, optimism, an insatiable need to win — and a “divine-like vision” to see around corners.

Forbes coverYes, the new Forbes billionaire issue does have everything. Except maybe perspective.

The editors at Forbes might quibble about that. They do, after all, take great pains in this new special issue to compare and contrast their raw numbers.

We can see in the new Forbes, for instance, that billionaires are multiplying much faster outside the United States than in. Russian billionaires have nearly doubled their numbers since last year, from 32 to 62. In Turkey, the billionaire tally has jumped from 12 to 28. In China, an even bigger surge, from 27 to 64.

The American billionaire count? Up only a meager 12 percent, from 359 to 403

Forbes also offers some perspective of sorts on overall billionaire wealth over time. The combined wealth of today’s 1,011 global billionaires — a group small enough to fit inside a modest theater — now stands at $3.6 trillion, a 50 percent leap over the $2.4 trillion in billionaire wealth Forbes calculated just a year ago.

“Last year’s wealth wasteland has become a billionaire bonanza,” Forbes trumpets. “Most of the richest people on the planet have seen their fortunes soar in the past year.”

But what about the rest of us? How does the wealth of the world’s top 1,011 compare to our wealth? The annual Forbes billionaire celebration doesn’t dwell on questions like these.

And questions like these remain notoriously difficult to answer. We simply don’t have comparable annual figures on wealth worldwide among average folks.

signupOne global scholarly project, the Luxembourg Wealth Study, is working to assemble this sort of data. In the meantime, the best figures we have about household wealth worldwide come out of a November 2007 report — from the United Nations University’s World Institute for Development Economics Research — and that report focuses on the year 2000.  

At that time, in 2000, the world’s billionaires — all 492 of them, as counted by Forbes — held a combined $2.16 trillion in wealth, a sum that surpassed the collective wealth of the world’s poorest 1.5 billion adults.

In the decade since, billionaires globally have over doubled. With a combined $3.6 trillion in net worth, today’s just over 1,000 billionaires may now hold twice as much wealth as the entire bottom half of the world’s adult population.

Too large a frame of reference for you? Let’s narrow things down — to Southern California’s Orange County, proud home to nine of the world’s billionaires, and that’s not counting Warren Buffett, who owns a vacation place in Laguna Beach.

Orange County’s nine billionaires, says Forbes, are sitting on personal fortunes worth a collective $28.2 billion. The half a million kids in Orange County’s 27 school districts, for their part, are sitting in considerably more crowded classrooms, after $500 million in budget cuts over the last two years.

In Capistrano, the second and third grade class size has jumped from 20 to 32 students. Last week, another school district in the county scrapped summer school for sixth and seventh graders and high school freshmen and juniors.  

The United States, Forbes editor-in-chief Steve Forbes told a news conference last week, “is lagging.” He wasn’t referring to classroom cutbacks in places like Capistrano. He was referring to America’s declining share of the total global billionaire population. In America today, that’s what passes as perspective.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online newsletter on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Too Much appears weekly. Read the current issue or sign up to receive Too Much in your inbox.

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4 comments for “Census Time for Billionaires”

  1. There are too many people to support on this finite planet, so those with the most should kindly step off, so that their wealth can be used to balance our environmental and equality deficits, with birth control given a great deal of attention. Greed needs to be considered a crime.

    Posted by Susanne Shaw | March 12, 2010, 10:49 pm
  2. If 1000 billionaires holding 3.6 trillion dollars suddenly get religion and give up their entire fortune to the other 6 billion people on the Earth, everyone’s share will be … wait for it … $600. A week’s pay if you live in America; a year or more if you live in Guatemala or Nigeria. It doesn’t go very far. I’m just doing the math. Might as well let them keep it.

    Posted by Gordon J Hensley | March 24, 2010, 10:15 pm
  3. Well said Gordon.
    Also… People get paid for the perceived value they bring to humanity. They didn’t get rich alone, many people profited along the way with them. Everyone involved paid taxes to support the country and bought many things providing jobs and sales taxes. Millions of people valued what these rich folks contributed to society… Enough to make them billionaires. How can the author think he his wiser or has the moral authority to undo the choices of the millions of people who made and continue to make these guys/gals rich?

    Posted by Vincent | June 12, 2010, 4:27 pm

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