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America has almost 800 billionaires, a record high

The debate over whether the world’s megarich are too rich is really a debate about whether America’s megarich are too rich.

Mike Bloomberg at Sun Valley, a conference popular with billionaires.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

America is now home to almost 800 billionaires, a record high that accounts for more than a quarter of the world’s megarich.

That rise of the billionaire class is made stark in a new report that paints their financial might in the most complete picture yet. It also serves as a vivid snapshot of American income inequality at a time when anti-billionaire sentiment is on the rise and fueling global backlash against ultra-wealthy elites from both the left and the right. So the debate over whether the world’s megarich are too rich is really a debate about whether America’s megarich are too rich.

The number of billionaires in the US reached 788 by the end of 2019, a 12 percent increase from the prior year, according to the report from Wealth-X, which produces the comprehensive annual study. Those American billionaires now control $3.4 trillion in total assets, 14 percent more than they did at the end of 2018.

The country with the next-highest number of billionaires, China, has fewer than half the number of the US. That $3.4 trillion in American billionaires’ net worth is more than the combined total net worths of the billionaires who reside in the next eight countries.

Only three years prior, at the end of 2016, America had 620 billionaires. Those billionaires controlled just $2.6 trillion then. But the rise of Silicon Valley — and its tech giants, which have skyrocketed in value in the years since — has built out the American billionaire class.

The San Francisco area is the third-most-common home for billionaires, up from fifth place in 2016. The other US cities now among the biggest billionaire concentrations are New York (No. 1 overall, with 113) and Los Angeles (No. 7 overall, with 44).

And there are few signs that the tech boom is abating, or at least impacting the bottom line of its billionaire leaders. As the coronavirus wrecks economies around the globe, threatening the lives of low-income and working-class people, the billionaires of the world are doing pretty okay. That’s especially true in the tech sector, where there are 8.4 percent more billionaires around the globe as of May 2020 compared with the end of 2019. That’s the highest uptick of any sector.

That there are more American billionaires than ever helps explain why there is more backlash than we’ve seen in a long time to their war chests and influence. “Billionaire” became an insult in the Democratic presidential primary over the past year, with candidates even debating whether billionaires “should exist.” Conservative populists have lumped in these billionaires as pursuing elite “globalist” policy goals that leave working-class Americans, such as those who voted for Donald Trump, out to dry. And a new chorus of critics have, with some success, flipped one of the assets of billionaires — their commitment to philanthropy — into a liability by turning it into a debate over tax avoidance.

This public interrogation of billionaires is not merely an academic exercise. It’s having an impact. We now feel as negatively about billionaires as we did during the financial crisis in 2009. If America does enter a depression due to the coronavirus, it makes you wonder just how much worse we’ll feel about the ultra-wealthy, especially now that they’re around in record numbers.