Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Who's the Richest of Them All? Measuring Wealth and Power, from John Hancock's Time to the Present

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Who's the Richest of Them All? Measuring Wealth and Power, from John Hancock's Time to the Present

Article excerpt

Relative wealth is difficult to measure.

John Hancock was one of the richest men in colonial America, yet at his death in 1793, he was worth only $350,000 - and even that could not have bought him an automobile.

Cornelius Vanderbilt was the richest man of his age, yet when he died in 1877, he was worth only $105 million - and even that could not have bought him a corporate jet. Sam Walton used computer technology to help build the Wal-Mart retail chain. It allowed him to leave $22 billion when he died in 1992. But in real terms, did that make Walton richer than John D. Rockefeller, who died in 1937 with $1.4 billion and had never seen a computer? All these men - Hancock, Vanderbilt, Walton and Rockefeller - amassed fortunes in America. Each lived extremely well by the standards of his times, and each left a fortune for his heirs. But who was the richest? Well, how do you want to measure it? Simply in terms of dollars, the answer is easy: Walton. His $22 billion beats all the others. And given what it could buy - including air conditioning and modern medical care - there is no question he lived the best material life of the four. But in economic terms, did his $22 billion make him richer and more powerful than Vanderbilt or Hancock? Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther propose an interesting answer in their new book "The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates - A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present" (Citadel Press, 362 pages, $25.95). Each rich person is a product of his time, they argue, and therefore needs to be judged by his time. And "his" is the appropriate pronoun. There is only one woman on their list, Hetty Green, about whom more later. To make such a measurement, one must find a consistent yardstick. Klepper, a successful investor who teaches at New York University, and Gunther, communications director at the Wharton School in Philadelphia, propose the gross national product - the market value of all goods and services produced by Americans, at home and abroad, and bought for final use during a year. Good estimates of the GNP are available back to the 18th century. Since 1991, the United States has measured its economy by the gross domestic product, the market value of all goods and services produced for final use within the nation's borders. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.