Money is a little different for a billionaire. For a billionaire compared to an average American, a trip on a private jet is like a New York City subway ride. A Lamborghini is like a Little Tike car. And buying a private island is like a down payment on a house.
Billionaires aren’t the 1%, they’re more like 0.0001% of population. And what’s the worst thing about being a billionaire? Nothing! Nothing at all. They can just make a call and meet with a world leader. At least a dozen are world leaders. There are roughly a hundred billionaires in the Chinese parliament.
Right now billionaires are booming. In 1987, there were an estimated 140 billionaires. In 2019, there are 15 times as many billionaires with almost 30 times more wealth, totaling almost nine trillion dollars.
If today’s billionaires formed a country, it would be the eighth wealthiest in the world. It’s an extraordinary amount of wealth that these people hold and they influence so many parts of the world.
That influence has made them symbols of inequality and a rigged system, fueling protests and political movements around the world. People are sick and tired of living in a nation and a world where so few have so much and so many have so little.
But many of these billionaires made their fortunes by inventing things that changed our lives. Some more so than others. So why are there more billionaires than ever? And are they good or bad for the world? The gap between the super-rich and the middle class widens in dramatic fashion.
Luisa Kroll helps create one of the most popular billionaire rankings in the world. Around 1981, at the time that the list was started, there were some obvious places to look for wealth in the country.
Places like Texas where you have the huge oil fortunes. Silicon Valley where tech was just starting to take off. And then in New York City, they literally walked around the city figuring out who owned this or that.
It turned out it’s incredibly hard to track down wealth. Very few people thought that they’d be able to pull it off, but in the end, in September 1982, they published the first Forbes 400.
On that first-ever wealth ranking were 11 heirs of John D. Rockefeller. He lived in the late 1800s in the United States, an era called the Gilded Age, which saw the world’s first-ever self-made billionaires.
In today’s dollars, Rockefeller and Carnegie are estimated to be more than twice as wealthy as the richest person in the world today. This age was characterized not only by this astounding wealth but massive corruption.
Mark Twain coined the term Gilded Age because while the wealth was glittering on the surface, it was rotten underneath. Carnegie, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller got rich from their political connections, consolidating industries into trusts and exploiting workers and they were barely taxed.
Before this time, wealth is hard to compare, but to be extremely wealthy, you probably controlled an empire, like Augustus Caesar, emperor of Rome, or Empress Wu Zetian of China or Mansa Musa, ruler of the Mali Empire, who controlled one of the largest sources of gold. His wealth was so legendary, his image was printed on one of the most important medieval maps.