If you want to confirm that America‘s rich are becoming immensely richer, review Forbes 400 wealthiest Americans, as published over the last 25 years. I have been aware of the list since its inception, because in 1982, I was serving on a board chaired by David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett Packard. And there, not surprisingly, was the accomplished Packard near the top of the list.
What is startling is how little money Packard had then by today’s standards. Packard and partner Bill Hewlett were among the top five richest Americans with $1.3 billion each.
Number one in 1982 was a little known shipping magnate, Daniel K. Ludwig, with $3 billion--which would today place him at 117th , right along side Boone Pickens, the Amarillo oilman and Oklahoma State graduate who would like to lure KU basketball coach Bill Self to his alma mater. And may.
Last September’s listing was topped by perennial leader Bill Gates (Microsoft) with $59 billion (up nearly 10-fold from $6.7 billion in 2000) and Warren Buffett, the Sage of Omaha, with $52 billion. Their combined $111 billion was nearly three-quarters of the $169 billion held by all 400 on the first list.
A surprise listing is Kansan Phil Ruffin, casino mogul, whom I’d never heard of until he bought former President Bill Clinton’s severed and signed necktie at a February 2007 dinner in Topeka. Ruffin is listed at $2.1 billion, and is said to want to build a destination casino in friendly Sumner County just down the road from Wichita, which said no thanks by ballot.
But Ruffin is nearly impecunious compared with fellow Wichitan Charles Koch who is number nine on the latest Forbes list, and tied with brother David Koch is also listed at $17 billion. The Kochs rival the immensely wealthy Arkansas Waltons, who inherited father Sam’s Wal-Mart fortune. But the Waltons deal in retail, not oil and commodities, so look for the Kochs to surge ahead by next September.
Three other Kansans are among the super-rich
There are three Johnson Countians, Taiwanese-born Min Koa, $4.7 billion, and partner Gary Burrell at $3.1 billion. In 1979, they started modestly, but got rich fast by manufacturing and selling Global Positioning Systems for nearly anything that moves and some things that don‘t.
And then there is Kansas City old money, philanthropist Donald Hall, Hallmark heir, with a measly $1.9 billion. To further illustrate the accelerated movement of wealth to the top, today’s 400 fortunes add up to $1.54 trillion, better than a nine-fold increase in 25 years over the first 400’s $169 billion.
To become so wealthy, people have made good investments. But, the Koch brothers perhaps made the best investment of all.
In 1977, Charles co-founded with one Edward Crane the conservative think-tank, the Cato Foundation--and today, David serves on its board. Something happened to America about 1970 when we stopped building the middle class and started shoving money to the top 1% who today have more wealth than the lower 90%.
If any one thing did it, it was the founding and copious funding of conservative think tanks and propaganda machines by wealthy, highly self-interested people.
They did not like objective studies by the universities and foundations of the era. So they paid scholars for hire to obtain results they wanted, and publicized their radical conclusions, like supply side economics, and privatizing Social Security, widely.
Three institutes lead the rest. The Heritage Foundation that was begun in 1973, the Cato Institute begun in 1977 and a re-financed American Enterprise Institute. When their operatives get on cable television, particularly Fox, you know what they are going to say, just not how they will say it.
The Kochs are also backing the Pacific Research Institute whose president, Sally C. Pipes, is telling Americans why they cannot have universal health care.
But, when you fill‘er up for $50, you’ll know, at least figuratively, some of your money is going to friendly Koch Industries in Wichita--and from them to don’t-tax-the-rich think tanks wherever they exist.
Dr. Roy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org