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Snapshot of a Plutocracy | The Nation

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Snapshot of a Plutocracy

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We can thank moronic editors, who know the hotsie-totsiest places to eat but not the important things of life that ought to go into their publications, for list journalism. To call this genre low-grade filler is to overpraise it. But there are exceptions, and the most valuable is the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in the United States.

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Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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The Forbes 400, present and past, constitutes the largest and most reliable trove of data on who owns how much of America. The government does not collect information on wealth, only on income, so the annual Forbes effort is unique. I have been told by IRS people off the record that they have found the 400 a useful tool.

The list is also a useful tool for anyone interested in power, the most important of the blessings great wealth confers. How much money, how much power? These 400 possess an aggregate $1.25 trillion. Imagine how many Congressmen that will buy.

If the first 400 have that kind of money, it looks to me as if the first 4,000 rich people, which includes all those at $900 million and $800 million levels, could presumably own and control most of the wealth in America. This is a disturbing snapshot of plutocracy. It could well be that a nation of 300 million people is run by about 1 percent of its population.

A quick look at this list and there goes the Republican eyewash about the death tax. Four of the ten richest human beings in America inherited their money. Scores of these billionaires got that way thanks to the exertion of their ancestors.

By the same token the income tax, which purportedly has been such a dead weight on entrepreneurial initiative, seems to have no effect on these billionaires. How, pray tell, did Bill Gates amass a fortune of more than $53 billion and Warren Buffett do nearly as well on a confiscatory tax system?

If the income tax is so painfully high, why is it that only twelve of the people on the list live abroad? And of these twelve, how many are tax refugees? How many prefer being someplace else, where it is not so easy to serve a summons?

There are only nineteen billionaire manufacturers on the list, but there are twenty-five from the finance category. And how many billionaires in agriculture? There are seven, six of whom inherited their money. Forbes also has a category for food billionaires. There are twenty-five of them making or inheriting money from fast food (Chick-fil-A), candy, soft drinks, chewing gum and Campbell's soup. All of that tells you something about America. The fact that there are sixteen health business billionaires, including the Frist family, tells you something else about America and the high cost of health insurance.

Some states are too poor, too dull, too much on the decline to harbor a billionaire. You won't find one in New Mexico or North Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi. What about the states with one or two billionaires? Try Idaho, where the Simplot Family, with $3.2 billion in their sporran, rules. Do they practice droit du seigneur there? On the other hand, there are eighty-nine billionaires in California, enough perchance that they might have a falling out and, once divided, give the impecunious masses a chance to make their will known. However, even at the risk of sounding a trifle Marxist, there is such a thing as class solidarity, and if there ever were a class that had reason to band together and stick it to the rest of us, it is the billionaire class and its lesser millionaire allies.

Unlike compiling a list of the ten most eligible bachelors or the ten best or worst doctors to go to for a facelift, compiling the Forbes list is an expensive, exhaustive and impressive work of journalism. It requires sending reporters of judgment, experience and ingenuity to track the super-rich in all corners of the United States.

The Forbes list is not compiled by calling up the Big Rich and asking, "Just how big rich are you?" A lot of these people would shoot a reporter sooner than talk to one. Many of them live in fear of kidnapping, burglary and assassination. The crown of gold does not necessarily ride easy on the head. These people do not pay untold sums for fences, guards and alarm systems only to give it away to some reporter whose shoes are scuffed and whose billfold is flat.

Conversely, some people--probably because they want to impress their bankers--seek to exaggerate their money. Such a one may be Donald Trump, about whom the magazine says, "He's lately put his fortune at $6 billion. We say it's $2.9 billion. We've never faulted Trump for showing a salesman's enthusiasm in his estimate; he's been sporting about our more skeptical one.... While not based on an audited statement, it's the result of many hours of research, fact-gathering and consultation with real estate professionals who've got nothing to gain from helping Trump inflate his wealth."

This is the twenty-fourth edition of the Forbes 400. The longer this list goes, the more valuable it becomes. Someday the Forbes people will surely do a retrospective in which they include the crates of unpublished notes and backup material that goes into creating the list each year. Such a longitudinal look will be hugely worthwhile, but in the meantime we have the annual list, and that gives a look at money and power we cannot get anywhere else.

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