Census Time for Billionaires

Sam Pizzigati

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.

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 learn from 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.

One 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.

signupOrange 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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