The Road to Aristocracy

The annual Forbes list of America’s 400 wealthiest individuals was released Monday.

Our 400 plutocrats had another stellar year, increasing their wealth by a tidy 13.5% to a record $2.29 Trillion. As has been the case for all but a few of the past 35 years, they did better than the country as a whole. Our national household wealth was up 10.5% over the past year. A good year, but nowhere near as good as the year the top 400 had.

A few tidbits on America’s concentrating wealth:

In a piece last year for the Arizona Republic, Absurd Inequity is Threatening U.S.,  I noted that our 51 wealthiest Americans controlled a total wealth of $1 Trillion. In 1982, reaching an equivalent share of our aggregate wealth would have required the wealthiest 1500 or so Americans.

Well, that “trillion-dollar club” shrank further over the past year. The 38 wealthiest Americans now have total wealth of $1 Trillion. And to reach $1.1 Trillion, the same share of our total wealth as $1 Trillion represented last year, would require the 47 wealthiest Americans. In other words, the share of our national wealth that the top 51 Americans held last year is now held by the top 47 Americans. See the trend?

Last year, I estimated the trillion-dollar club of 2044 would have just 12 members if our current pace of wealth concentration were to continue. A year later, we’re still on track.

Of course, the road to aristocracy is paved with poverty. While the wealth of the fabulous 400 has soared, the incomes of middle class and poor in America have declined.

So I continue to wonder: How much wealth and how much income can we cram into the top 1% before the bottom 90% explodes?

7 responses to “The Road to Aristocracy

  1. Robert Slaven

    Whether the situation in today’s America is as bad as the situation in 1788 France isn’t really the issue. Sure, we don’t have people literally starving the way some were in pre-Revolutionary France. But there’s still one point that is the same: The work that 90+% of the people are doing, the hard work, the work which produces a great deal of wealth, is not benefiting the 90+%. It’s benefiting the people who DON’T do the hard work, the ones who sit on their duffs and collect dividends. “The idler shall not eat the bread of the labourer.” When people get sick of the wealth they create being hoarded by the idler … when people learn that the differences among them (D vs. R, union vs. non-union, white vs. people of colour, Protestant vs. Catholic, you name it) are as nothing compared to the difference between the idle rich and the rest of us … when that awakening happens, the rich will have two choices. They could choose to allow a fairer system … or, as is more likely according to history, they could try to cling to their filthy lucre as long as possible, at which point America will very likely Party Like It’s 1789.

    • You can argue my point but it doesn’t alter the reality that you just can’t get that many people riled up and angry that the truly rich exist. Do you know why? Because MOST Americans have aspirations of becoming wealthy one day. MOST Americans do not seeth in envy at those who are rich. Of course these are mostly Conservatives. In fact, it is a large part of why they are Conservative in the first place. Do you really think they are going to suddenly change their minds and join your illegal revolution?

      Even more importantly, Robert, you should be careful what you wish for. IF such a revolution were to occur, people would have to choose sides. It would become more a cause of haves versus have nots than rich versus poor. Do you think the Armed Forces would suddenly jump up and join you or do you think they would defend the Constitution and the status quo? Some members would join you as individuals, but the Armed Forces are largely Conservative organizations that would not view your radicalism with favor. Beyond that, do you really think you could recruit Conservatives like me to your cause? It is doubtful.

      And where would you find the guns and ammo for your revolution? On the liberal side from where you would recruit your army? From the liberals who have fought for four decades to ban and control guns? Remember, most of the guns and ammo in this country are in the hands of the people who would oppose you. There would be death and destruction on a massive scale. It would not be the clean and easy victory you imagine in your dreams. It would mean blood in the streets, families wiped out, cities destroyed, and in the end, revolutions rarely succeed, so all the bloodshed would have been for nothing.

      As I said, be careful what you wish for, Robert…

  2. Do you see an actual “torch and pitchfork” revolution coming, Bob? One in which people take up arms and buildings burn? Or will it be a political revolution with marching in the streets followed by massive voting for third party candidates untainted by dark money?

    I have come around to agreeing with you that there is too much wealth concentrated in too few people at the top. But what is a reasonable and fair way to reduce that concentration? Given the ease with which wealth can be tranferred overseas and otherwise hidden, how hard would it be to reduce their wealth? Given the corrupting influence of money, how do you keep politicians honest so that the advantages handed to the wealthy by the Government doesn’t occur all over again?

    I know that is a lot of questions, but I have not thought much in this direction before and I am curious how you see change being effected.

    • Steve, I think it’s impossible to predict what form the revolution will take. That I suppose would depend in part on what the elite does to thwart the movement at its early stages. Ideally, we’d see an Occupy movement on steroids, but if you read what the powers that be did to stop Occupy, it’s not pretty. A more unpleasant possibility is that the so-called terrorist groups we see are the modern day equivalent of the Huns and the Visigoths, the marauding tribes that took down the Roman Empire. If you’re interested in the subject, I’d recommend two sources to start: Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” is a must to understanding this area. Piketty also is worth reading just to experience his emormous intellect and knowledge base. Then there’s Sam Pizzigati’s “The Rich Don’t Always Win” which shows how we’ve beaten this problem before (and is a great historical work as well).

      • I guess I am more optimistic in that I don’t see a violent overthrow. I could see something like the Occupy Movement having an effect if it was better organized. I guess we could have terrorism, but I don’t see it having that great an effect because it would be more likely to turn people against it’s movement than encourage people to join it. I also know how effective we are at fighting terrorism both at home and overseas.

        I am convinced the only answer is through the ballot box. Any other method is too destructive. But let me look for those books and see what they have to offer me.

  3. I believe that at some point, everyone on the bottom will get up one fine morning and within some days or even weeks end up launching our version of the Frence Revolution; once that begins these 47 or fewer people won’t have enough private security forces to hide behind, it will be ugly just like the French Revolution was. What else can people do? This can be stopped with reversing Citizens United case, follow that up with reversing corporate personhood, then invoke the antitrust act and we might be able to salvage whats left of our country

    • I would certainly hate to see something like the French Revolution happen here because our entire Nation would cease to exist. The Constitution would have no meaning and we would be unlikely to have ANY centralized form of Government.

      Fortunately, your comparison between the French Revolution and what you want to have happen today is a false one. The French people, prior to the Revolution, had suffered for almost fifty years from literally starving in the streets, being subject to mercurial application of public laws, of outrageous sentences to prison and an Autocracy that had the power of life and death over them. We don’t have any of that today. When the Revolution finally did come to France, the vast majority of the French people joined in. If you tried really hard to stir up some Americans, you’d be lucky to get a few thousand going with you. The French Army eventually joined the Revolution. I seriously doubt that would happen in the ranks of the American Army.

      You see, despite all the whining and moaning about how desperate things are for the poor in America, they are no where near as bad off as the poor in virtually every other country on earth. That doesn’t mean their lot in life couldn’t be improved, but to pretend they are desperate to the point of revolution is foolish.