America’s Grand Fortunes Go Overboard

Imagine yourself part of the typical American family. Your household would have, the Federal Reserve reported in September, a net worth of $81,200.

That’s not a whole lot of money. But half of America’s households would actually have less wealth than you do.

Forbes 400

Image via Steve Rhodes @ Flickr.

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 possessing a grand fortune.

So suppose your wealth quadrupled again. That would bump your net worth — your total assets minus the sum of 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 pay their college tuition.

So imagine that your net worth quadruples 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 BMWs 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. But you still have to share a plane with the unwashed masses back in coach — and they take forever getting their carry-ons up in those overhead bins.

You need relief. So multiply that $5.2 million fortune 1,000 times over — to $5.2 billion. Now you can buy your own private jet.

Even better, you get your name printed in the annual Forbes magazine list of America’s 400 richest people. But even at $5.2 billion, your fortune would rate as just fair-to-middling in super-rich circles. America’s wealthiest 400 now hold a combined net worth of $2.3 trillion. That places the average Forbes 400 fortune at $5.7 billion, an all-time record high.

The richest of the 400 hold far more than that average. Take Larry Ellison, who just stepped down as the CEO of Oracle business software and holds the No. 3 spot. His net worth: $50 billion.

What does Ellison do with all those billions? He collects residences, for starters, with 15 or so homes 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 mastered 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.

Job massacres like this have been hollowing out America’s middle class ever since the Forbes 400 first appeared 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 actually dropped from $75,300 to $61,700, after taking inflation into account.

Forbes doesn’t bother asking how our absurdly rich went about making their fortunes. But we should. Our top 400, after all, haven’t just made monstrously large fortunes. They’ve made a monstrously large mess.

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