Imagine yourself part of the typical American family. Your household would have, the Federal Reserve reported last month, a net worth of $81,200.
Not much. But 50 percent of America’s households would actually have less wealth than you do. The other half would have more.
Now imagine that your net worth suddenly quadrupled to about $325,000. That sum would place you within the ranks of America’s most affluent 20 percent of income earners. You would be “typical” no more. On the other hand, you still wouldn’t be rich, or even close to grand fortune.
So suppose we quadrupled your wealth still again, enough to get your net worth — your assets minus your debts — all the way up to $1.3 million.
Congratulations. You now hold 16 times more wealth than the typical American. You probably have paid off your mortgage. You have a healthy balance in your 401(k). You have investment income. You have it made.
But not really. You still have to worry financially, about everything from losing your job to helping your kids with their college tuition.
So let’s quadruple your net worth once again — to $5.2 million.
You now sit comfortably within the ranks of America’s richest 1 percent. You can afford, well, just about anything you want. A getaway in the mountains, another getaway on the shore. Two beamers in the driveway. Impressive philanthropic gestures. Direct access to your U.S. senators.
Enough already? Actually, no. With a fortune of just $5.2 million, you still have to put up with the inconveniences of mere mortal existence. Yes, you can fly first class anywhere you want. But you have to fly with the great unwashed back in coach — and they take forever getting their carry-ons up in those overhead bins.
You need relief. We’re going to give it to you. We’re going to multiply your $5.2 million fortune 1,000 times over — to $5.2 billion. Now you can buy your own private jet.
Even better, now you get your name printed in the annual Forbes magazine list of America’s 400 richest. At $5.2 billion, your fortune would nearly rate as an average Forbes 400 stash. America’s top 400, Forbes revealed last week, now hold a combined net worth of $2.29 trillion. That places the average Forbes 400 fortune at $5.7 billion, an all-time record high.
Remember back when you held that median American nest-egg of $81,200? The average member of the Forbes 400 holds a fortune over 70,000 times that size.
And the richest of these 400 hold far more than that average. Take Larry Ellison, the third-ranking deep pocket on this year’s Forbes list. Ellison just stepped down as the CEO of the Oracle business software colossus. His net worth: $50 billion.
What does Ellison do with all those billions? He collects homes and estates, for starters, with 15 or so scattered all around the world. Ellison likes yachts, too. He currently has two extremely big ones, each over half as long as a football field.
Ellison also likes to play basketball, even on his yachts. If a ball bounces over the railing, no problem. Ellison has a powerboat following his yacht, the Wall Street Journal noted this past spring, “to retrieve balls that go overboard.”
Hiring that ball-retriever qualifies Ellison as a “job creator,” right? Maybe not. Ellison has regularly destroyed jobs on his way to grand fortune. He has become, over the years, a master of the merge-and-purge two-step: First you snatch your rival’s customers, then you fire its workers.
In 2005, for instance, Ellison shelled out $10.6 billion to buy out PeopleSoft, an 11,000-employee competitor. He then proceeded to put the ax to 5,000 jobs.
Five years later, Ellison bought out Sun Microsystems and indignantly denied that any “massive layoff” would be in the offing. Five months later, Ellison’s Oracle quietly acknowledged a major downsizing in an official federal regulatory filing.
Job massacres like these been hollowing out America’s middle class ever since Forbes started annually identifying the nation’s richest 400 back in the 1980s. Since 1989, Federal Reserve figures show, the median net worth of families in America’s statistical middle class — the middle 20 percent of income earners — has dropped from $75,300 to $61,700, after taking inflation into account.
This year, for the first time ever, Forbes has assigned a “self-made score” to every one of America’s richest 400. More than two-thirds of this year’s 400, Forbes claims, rate as “self-made,” Ellison among them.
Forbes doesn’t bother asking how those rich went about self-making their fortunes. We should. Our top 400, after all, haven’t just made monstrously large fortunes. They’ve made a monstrously large mess. To unmake it, we need to unmake them.
Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the Institute for Policy Studies online weekly on excess and inequality. His latest book: "The Rich Don't Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class" (Seven Stories Press).