Both Oars In Should serious wealth be taken seriously?

Forbes recently published a list of the 1,226 wealthiest people on the planet. Usually, “top” lists come in round numbers like 10 or 100, but Forbes seems to have set the cutoff at $1 billion in assets rather than at a defined number of people.

I guess one of the benefits of being a billionaire is that you do not get treated like a number—which is a bit ironic since it’s a number that makes a billionaire a billionaire.

Not cutting minor billionaires from the list of wealthiest planet-dwellers is probably a good strategy for Forbes since the magazine carries a lot of ads for private jets and yachts. No doubt some billionaires would be inclined to drop their subscription if they were eliminated on a technicality. This could hurt the magazine’s ability to convince advertisers that Forbes is the best place to reach all 1,226 people who can actually afford a private jet or a yacht.

I was a bit surprised that there are only 1,226 known billionaires on the planet. (By the way, does the term “on the planet” exclude those who may be in transit to the moon? I hear there are flights. Or, is “on the planet” just money-speak for “in the world”?) Frankly, given inflation, I expected there to be more. Even though a dollar is only worth 20% of what it used to be, I guess amassing a billion of them is still relatively rare.

The reason I thought the list would be longer is the huge amount of free advice we have been hearing from billionaires on everything from the economy to school reform. It seems that for every problem there is a billionaire with an idea how to solve it. Judging by the sheer volume of counsel, I thought there had to be a lot more billionaires. I guess it is just their advice that is so common.

The wealthiest member of the list is Carlos Slim Helu of Mexico at $69 billion. Mexico’s most avaricious dealmaker swears he has quit working—honest. This gives him time to make lots of suggestions about solving the planet’s economic problems. His latest advice is for debt-strapped nations to privatize their highways. Companies would buy the roadways in exchange for the right to charge tolls.

Since I like rolling down the freeway unencumbered, I am not sure I like this idea. Admittedly, I might not like any idea that comes from a guy who has been fined $1 billion for price fixing. After an OECD report pointed out that Mexican callers were paying too much, regulators ruled that Mr. Slim is using his communication monopoly in Mexico to keep his margins fat.

The next two wealthiest people are well known to us: Bill Gates at $61 billion and Warren Buffett at $44 billion. Gates and Buffett are joined by 35 other US-based billionaires ranked in the top 100, making the US the most represented country on the select list. It doesn’t take an Einstein to predict that statistic; we also have the most Kardashians.

The 37 wealthiest billionaires have over $680 billion in assets collectively—and a lot of hoodies. The group could buy Apple even without Mr. Gates. (He probably would not want to participate anyway since he has his own computer company.) But, even if this group can buy the largest corporation in the world, they still don’t have enough to put even a small dent in our national debt. So, how much can $680 billion be worth, really?

I do not begrudge billionaires their wealth or the luxury it affords them. Afterall, wealthy people are as natural a result of a free, capitalist market as middle class people. I even enjoy looking at the yachts Forbes promos from time to time. However, I do question the influence these financial moguls have on social matters, economics, politics and the culture in general. Of course, their money is not what gives them this ‘authority’ – we do that when we listen.

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