Thanks to Will Shetterly It‘s All One Thing for pointing out this list of The wealthy 100: a ranking of the richest Americans past and present This list is very interesting, as it ranks them by their percentage of the Gross National Product, a surer comparison even than trying to correct for inflation, and a clearer vision of their impact on society. Bill Gates, for example, only ranks at no. 31 on this list; no. 1 is John D. Rockeller, which most historians would agree is a fair comparison of their respective social and political power.
The other interesting thing I noticed is that this listing belies the conventional wisdom that the rich are getting richer. While the list doesn’t say exactly when their fortunes were earned, it does list their birth and death, and I think we can safely say their money was made before their death- possibly not counting Elvis and Tupak who kept recording and releasing new albums long after they died. I have broken down how many of these vast fortunes were earned by historical eras:
Before 1800: 4
Still alive: 9
84% of all American mega fortunes were made before most of us were born- and clearly nowadays, one must do something that truly changes the course of society to make it, as Bill Gates or Sam Walton did. (leaving aside the issue of whether those changes were positive or negative) And even so, they won’t have the power that the rich did in the past- J.D. Rockefeller was 1/65 of the entire nation’s economy; Bill gates, despite all his billions, is only 1/425 of today’s GDP. The rich are getting less influential with each passing day. This is a good thing.