Making money the old-fashioned way

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, November 13, 2013

By Daniel Sutter

In 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement briefly captured the nation’s attention. The Occupy protestors railed against the top 1% of earners taking advantage of the other 99% of Americans. Although the protests have faded, the question of how the wealthy obtain their riches endures and merits periodic revisiting.

Answers to this question shapes peoples’ perception of our economy and the role of government. High tax rates on top incomes, corporate income, and estates seem reasonable if wealth is inherited or otherwise unearned. As Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute notes, Americans appreciate money earned in our free enterprise system. But whether wealth is earned through contributions to the economy, inherited, or gained through crony relations must be checked.

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Every year Forbes magazine lists the 400 richest Americans based on estimated net worth. How the richest Americans have earned their fortunes offers one perspective on America’s top 1%. Examination of the 2013 list clearly reveals that the richest Americans have, as the late John Houseman said in the old TV commercial, made their money the old-fashioned way, they earned it.

The list can be parsed several ways to demonstrate this. Forbes characterizes each person’s wealth as self-made, inherited and growing, or just inherited. Self-made billionaires dominate the list, with 275, while another 55 inherited a growing fortune, meaning that they have significantly added to their wealth. Only 70, less than 20% of the top 400, inherited their fortunes. The great fortunes amassed by the great entrepreneurs of America’s past, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Mellon, Ford and DuPont, account for only 3 of the 400.

Active, thriving businesses drive America’s greatest fortunes. The Forbes classifications do not fully capture this. Several of the “inherited fortunes” were created by businesses that have transformed the modern American economy. For instance, Forbes classifies Laurene Powell Jobs as having inherited her wealth, even though her late husband Steve Jobs built this fortune through Apple. Similarly the Wal-Mart heirs are classified as inherited. It is more telling to identify fortunes created by living and thriving businesses. By my count, living and thriving businesses fuel at least 40 of the inherited fortunes. Therefore, fewer than 10% of the Forbes 400 reflect older money, and in many of these cases, still recognizable companies like S.C. Johnson or Mars Candies.

The impact of their products on our lives provides another evaluation of the contribution of the Forbes 400. Consider the following day. This day might require more than a day and would be difficult to carry out if you live in Troy, so I ask for a little literary license.

Start the day with Starbucks coffee. Then use a Dell computer running Microsoft software to purchase the latest Oprah Winfrey book club selection on Next it’s off for shopping, using a Garmin GPS system to navigate between stops. The first stop is Home Depot to buy some Kohler plumbing fixtures for a weekend project. Next up is Best Buy, to purchase director Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, and then it’s off to Hobby Lobby to pick up craft supplies. After a stop at a Love’s Country Store for gas, it’s off to Chick-fil-A for lunch, during which time you can use your iPhone to check Facebook, or LinkedIn if you prefer, and bid on an auction on EBay. Next it is off to the mall to shop for Polo clothes and Estee Lauder cosmetics at The Gap and Nordstrom’s. Finally it is time for grocery shopping. I would suggest a stop at an HEB store if available, but a Wal-Mart supercenter offers considerable variety at low cost. And once back home it is time to watch some TV, perhaps through DirecTV or Dish Network.

All of the named companies or persons in this day busy have produced fortunes on the Forbes 400 list. Other measures might tell a different story, but the wealthiest Americans have overwhelmingly gotten rich from providing new or improved goods and services to our economy. The 99% benefit more in the aggregate from these goods and services than the Forbes 400. Market transactions benefit both parties, producing a win-win situation, especially with the biggest winners in the American economy.