May 24, 2019
Jeff who? On paper he’s the world’s richest man, yet by another measure Jeff Bezos’ fortune would rank pretty far down the list, well behind that of John D. Rockefeller—and, for that matter, Marcus Licinius Crassus.
Adjusted for inflation, Rockefeller’s fortune today would be $26 billion, well short of Bezos’ current worth of $117 billion. But economist Samuel Williamson, who runs measuringworth.com, thinks a better comparison would be “relative output,” the ratio of wealth to GDP.
When Rockefeller died in 1937, his fortune was reported as $1.5 billion, or about 1.6% of U.S. GDP for that year. By that measure, Rockefeller’s 1.6% of 2019 GDP would be worth $331 billion, or nearly three times Bezos’ fortune.
Coming in slightly behind Rockefeller in the relative output ranking is another titan of industry, Andrew Carnegie. Using Williamson’s yardstick, Carnegie’s fortune would be valued today at $321 billion.
Cornelius Vanderbilt, the shipping and railroad tycoon who built Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, also would come in ahead of Bezos with $238 billion, as would another New Yorker, John Jacob Astor, whose fortune today would be a comparatively modest $169 billion. So would Alan the Red, the 11th-century Breton nobleman, whose land holdings would put his fortune in 2019 terms at north of $200 billion.
Bezos’ rivals in the 12-figure club aren’t all long-ago personages. Using Williamson’s criteria, Bill Gates’ fortune at its peak would be valued at $213 billion. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation alone has an endowment of $51 billion, Bloomberg News reported.
As for Crassus, the Roman general and politician who beat back Spartacus’ slave revolt in 71 BC, wealth-building took a variety of forms, including the appropriation of the spoils of war. Pliny the Elder estimated Crassus’ fortune as the equivalent of the entire annual budget of the Roman Republic. Today, Williamson estimates it as the equivalent of $210 billion.
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