The World's Billionaires: A New Count, a New Record

Eight years ago, just a day before retiring as one of the world's most important economic officials, International Monetary Fund managing director Michel Camdessus surprised -- and maybe even shocked -- a global conference audience in Bangkok. A world that lets wealth concentrate in precious few hands, Camdessus declared, is asking for colossal trouble.

"The widening gaps between rich and poor within nations," the departing IMF executive advised, "are morally outrageous, economically wasteful, and potentially socially explosive. It is not enough to increase the size of the cake. The way it is shared is deeply relevant."

Ignore the obligation to share, Camdessus warned, and the world will surely witness "confrontation, violence, and civil disorder."

That warning, we can now safely say, hasn't exactly scared the world's greediest straight. The latest Forbes international billionaire list, released earlier this month, reveals a global concentration of wealth that has reached truly staggering proportions.

Forbes now counts 1,125 billionaires worldwide, up 179 from last year. Their total combined net worth: $4.4 trillion, up 26 percent from the total wealth of last year's billionaires.

Trillions, of course, really don't mean much in isolation. To truly understand the enormity of contemporary billionaire fortune, we need context. We need to know, for instance, how the wealth of the world's 1,125 billionaires stacks up against the wealth of the rest of the world.

Our best current estimate of world wealth comes from a December 2006 report published by the United Nations University's World Institute for Development Economics Research.

That report estimated that the world's 3.7 billion adults, as of 2000, held some $125.3 trillion worth of wealth. At that time, in 2000, the world's billionaires -- all 492 of them -- held a combined $2.16 trillion in wealth, a sum that surpassed the collective wealth of the world's poorest 1.5 billion adults.

Since then, the combined wealth of the world's billionaires has skyrocketed 104 percent, more than doubling. Today's 1,125 billionaires, extrapolating from the 2000 data, likely now hold more wealth than half of the world's adult humankind.

And what are these billionaires doing with their fortunes? By and large, they're doing what the mega rich always do. They're flexing their political muscles -- to amass still more wealth -- and playing ego games that leave average citizens in the lurch.

In China, now home to nearly twice as many billion-dollar fortunes as Japan, newly minted billionaires are campaigning to undo a new labor law that protects workers. They're also pressing the government to slash the tax rate on income in China's top tax bracket from 45 to 30 percent.

In India, a nasty feud between two estranged billionaire brothers, for control over the power company empire they inherited from their father, has "led to brown-outs, black-outs, and a general electricity crisis in the Indian capital New Delhi."

Russia has roared to second place in the world billionaire sweepstakes, according to the latest Forbes data, with China moving up the rankings almost just as rapidly.

Still, despite the explosive growth of Russian and Asian billionaire fortunes, the United States remains far and away the most favored world billionaire hotspot. But maybe not for long. In 2006, Americans made up half the top 20 billionaires on the Forbes list. The latest Forbes top 20 sports just four Americans.

That fall-off, unfortunately, doesn't signify any trend away from massive wealth concentration in the United States. The rest of the world is merely concentrating wealth ever faster.

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