With Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (and arguments about its data) pushing debate about income inequality in the West, CNN Money decided to take a look back to see how today’s richest Americans stack up against history. It’s not surprising that oil baron John D. Rockefeller comes in first with a net worth of $253 billion in 2013 dollars, or that the list is composed entirely of white men, but Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are the only two living people to make the top twenty, and neither are in the top ten. Gates, with an estimated $74 billion, is 12th and Buffet, with $63.8 billion, comes in at 14th.
Top five richest Americans would have all had over $100 billion in 2013 dollars
Railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt came in second with $205 billion, followed by Manhattan real estate magnate John Jacob Astor with $138 billion. Stephen Girard used his fleet of ships to get into finance and eventually built up $120 billion, and Pittsburgh banker Richard Mellon comes in fifth in top richest Americans with $103 billion in 2013 dollars.
The rest of the top ten is made up of Andrew Carnegie (who set an example for Warren Buffet by giving his entire fortune away), Stephen Van Rensselaer (the only man on the list to inherit his entire fortune), Alexander Turney Stewart, Frederick Weyerhäuser, and Jay Gould.
Richest Americans: Wealth measured as percent of total economy
To compare net incomes across time, Hargreaves follows the example of The Wealthy 100 authors Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther and considers net worth as a proportion of the nation’s economy at the time at time of death. There are a couple of obvious flaws to this approach: it ignores exposure to the rest of the world, chooses the last day of life instead of maximum wealth, and measures against the economy in a single year instead of over a business cycle. You can see this effect in the rankings of brothers Richard and Andrew Carnegie because the Richard died in 1932 while the US was still suffering through the Great Depression while Andrew died in 1937 when the recovery was underway, causing them to be ranked 5th and 15th respectively.
Inflation or purchasing power might have given a better sense of how wealthy these people were relative to other Americans living at the same time, but it’s doubtful that another approach would change who shows up on the list all that much even if a few might swap places.