Forbes publishes list of 400 wealthiest Americans
By Tom Eley
24/09/08 "WSWS" -- - Even as the US careens into its greatest
economic calamity since the Great Depression, the financial
aristocracy whose parasitism and criminality has brought on the
crisis has held its own—and then some.
The recently released Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans
shows that the combined wealth of the aristocracy has increased
2 percent, even amidst the financial breakdown and recession of
the economy. “In this, the 27th edition of the list,” Forbes
glumly notes, “the assembled net worth of America’s wealthiest
rose by $30 billion—only 2%—to $1.57 trillion.”
Readers will be forgiven for tripping over the word “only” in
relationship to a $30 billion increase in wealth for 400
spectacularly wealthy individuals. This “modest” figure—the
increase in wealth for the oligarchy in a bad year—is only
slightly less than the federal government has budgeted for
unemployment insurance for all of 2008.
The overall wealth of the 400 richest Americans is staggering.
There are no multimillionaires on the list; a minimum of $1.3
billion being required to gain admittance, while the average net
worth is $3.9 billion.
The combined wealth of the richest 400 individuals is $400
billion more than the entire discretionary spending budget for
the federal government. It is more than $300 billion larger than
the combined 2008 outlay for Social Security, Medicare, and
Medicaid. It is more than 15 times the combined appropriations
for education and highways and mass transit.
The personal wealth of the top 400 Americans is more than twice
the combined annual GDP of all of sub-Saharan Africa, home to
nearly 800 million people, the vast majority of whom live in
dire conditions. It is also several hundred billion dollars
larger than the GDP of the world’s eighth biggest economy, that
The club’s richest member is Microsoft magnate Bill Gates, whose
net worth, $57 billion, is greater than the annual GDP of about
120 of the world’s 180 nations.
The year’s biggest winner is New York City Mayor Michael
Bloomberg, whose personal wealth increased by $8.5 billion to
$20 billion, making Bloomberg the nation’s eighth richest
On Tuesday, without a hint of irony—much less shame—Mayor
Bloomberg proposed brutal across-the-board budget cuts for the
city of New York. He is calling for cutbacks totaling $500
million for the current fiscal year, to be followed by much
steeper cuts in the coming years. Meanwhile Bloomberg, in the
course of just one year, pocketed 17 times what he is now
demanding that millions of working people in New York City
forfeit in terms of vital services and jobs. Only in America!
However, owing to the turbulence of the stock market, great
fortunes were being both made and squandered even as Forbes
published its list. “The Forbes 400 is a snapshot of estimated
wealth on Aug. 29, 2008, the day we locked in prices of publicly
traded stocks,” the magazine wrote. “Given how unsettled the
stock market is, some of those on our list will become
significantly richer or poorer within weeks—even days—of
publication. Many, including AIG shareholders Eli Broad and
Steven Udvar-Hazy, have lost hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Becoming poorer is of course a relative process; we can be
certain that none of the demoted oligarchs faces hunger.
Among this year’s biggest “losers”—and there is a degree of
poetic justice in this—are casino moguls. Kirk Kerkorian has
managed to squander $6.8 billion of ill-gotten social wealth,
while the fortune of his rival Sheldon Adelson “has fallen $13
billion in the past 12 months—$1.5 million per hour.” Adelson
has managed to lose more in an hour than most US workers will
earn in a lifetime.
That the nation’s financial aristocracy continues to gorge
itself even as the economy stagnates demonstrates the increasing
parasitism of the elite. The wealth of the super-rich is no
longer bound up with the growth of the real economy, as it was
in the days of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford. Just the
opposite is the case. The wealth of the aristocracy is based on
the plundering and destruction of the real economy.
A perusal of the basis of the Forbes 400 members’ wealth
illustrates the parasitic nature of US capitalism. The largest
two categories on the list are “finance” with 65 members and
“investments” with 51. Among the “sources” Forbes lists for
these categories are “leveraged buyouts,” “investments,” “hedge
funds,” “money management,” and “banking, insurance.”
The next largest category is “media/entertainment,” with 36
representatives among the Fortune 400, followed by the 35
members in the highly toxic “real estate” category. There are 30
members of the Fortune 400 who have reaped their fortunes from
“technology,” almost all from Internet ventures or computer
technology. Twenty-eight more are found in the “oil/gas”
Among the Fortune 400 there are 20 in the “retail” group, among
them seven members of the Walton clan, owners of Wal-Mart, who
collectively have assets of over $100 billion.
It has to be asked: Are there any members of the Forbes 400
actually associated with producing commodities or creating
wealth of some sort?
There are only 19 members of the 400 in the category called
“manufacturing.” However, upon inspection we see that this group
is comprised of corporate raiders, oil refiners, inheritors, and
controllers of holding companies. Only five members of this
classification are actually associated with producing a
commodity—and four of these produce light consumer goods.
Likewise, there are only 11 members of the financial aristocracy
whose wealth has been associated with commodity production in
the agricultural sector. But among these, nine are inheritors of
the Cargill fortune. Of the other two, one has gained his
fortune selling discount cigarettes; another by producing
pesticides in Argentina.
There are nine members of the group in the “apparel” category,
which is split between those whose wealth has come from retail
sales, such as the owners of the Gap clothing stores, and those
who have made windfalls by producing consumer goods in low-cost
countries and selling the products for inflated prices in the
US, such as Phil Knight of Nike.
There is only one member of the “construction/engineering”
category, the 321st richest American, Alfred Clark, who has made
his fortune by building sports stadiums. The “food” category, of
which there are 21 members, is divided among retailers,
inheritors, and the owners of single product lines, including
the owner of the Slim-Fast empire. There are only three members
of the “shipping/trucking/transport” category, and one member of
“mining/lumber” (whose wealth came from overseas ventures).
In short, the incredible fortunes accumulated by the American
elite have precious little to do with socially useful
production. On the contrary, the financial aristocracy has
reaped its obscene piles of wealth from the gutting of
infrastructure, the shuttering of industrial production, and the
impoverishment of working people, the broad mass of the
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