The ultrarich represent an emergent global aristocracy—or rather, a new oligarchy. Fewer than one hundred billionaires now own as much as 50 percent of the world’s assets—the same amount that around four hundred billionaires owned a little more than five years ago. In the United States, the richest four hundred U.S. citizens now have more wealth than 185 million of their fellow Americans combined. The shift has been dramatic: the top 1 percent in America captured just 4.9 percent of total U.S. income growth from 1945 to 1973, but in the following two decades the country’s richest classes gobbled up the majority of U.S. income growth.
Patterns of property ownership reflect the very same trends that anchored both the medieval aristocratic and ecclesiastical classes. The proportion of land owned by the nation’s hundred largest private landowners grew by nearly 50 percent between 2007 and 2017. In 2007, according to the Land Report, this group owned a combined twenty-seven million acres of land, equivalent to the area of Maine and New Hampshire combined. A decade later, the hundred largest landowners had holdings of over forty million acres. Their holdings are now larger than the entirety of New England. Even in much of the vast American West, where much of the land remains in public hands, billionaires have created expansive estates that many fear will make the rest of the local population land-poor.
In the past, the oligarchy tended to be associated with either Wall Street or industrial corporate executives. But today the predominant and most influential group consists of those atop a handful of mega-technology firms. Six firms—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Netflix—have achieved a combined net worth equal to one-quarter of the nasdaq, more than the next 282 firms combined and equal to the GDP of France. Seven of the world’s ten most valuable companies come from this sector. Tech giants have produced eight of the twenty wealthiest people on the planet. Among the nation’s billionaires, all those under forty live in the state of California, with twelve in San Francisco alone. In 2017, the tech industry produced eleven new billionaires, mostly in California. Only China, home to nine of the world’s top twenty tech firms, presents any kind of challenge to their domination.