Who has been/is the richest person in history? “Given that currencies are hard to translate across eras, and purchasing power differs hugely, one economist suggests a measurement on the basis of human labour. How many people could each member of the super-rich employ in his time? The figure for Crassus is apparently 32,000 Romans—or half the capacity of the Colosseum. This compares with John D Rockefeller’s 116,000 Americans in 1937 and Bill Gates’s 75,000 in 2005. The wealthiest of all would be Carlos Sim, who could command some 440,000 Mexicans with his fortune in 2009.”
The Gini coefficient is a standard measure of inequality in the distribution of any variable, say income. It ranges between 0 and 1. The higher the value, the greater the inequality. What was the Gini coefficient in the distribution of income in Rome at the time of Crassus? Between 0.42 and 0.44, roughly the figure in USA today. John Kampfner is not a researcher. Though he has other interests, he is probably best described as a journalist and the answers to those two interesting questions are based on other people’s research. It is just that Kampfner has painstakingly used quite a bit of existing research to produce case studies of 10 super-rich people, straddling centuries. This forms part one of the book and explains the sub-title of a 2,000-year history.
The 10 case studies are Marcus Licinius Crassus, Alain Le Roux, Mansa Musa, Cosimo de’ Medici, Francisco Pizzaro, Louis XIV and Akhenaten together, Jan Pieterszoon Coen and Robert Clive together, the Krupps, Andrew Carnegie and Mobutu Sese Seko. The author gives his justifications for choosing these, not because they have been the richest ever, but because they did something special, or exhibited some distinguishing characteristic, not just in acquiring riches, but in disposing of it thereafter. Part two is about the present, with the focus shifting from the individual to the collective. There are thus four chapters on the sheikhs, the oligarchs, the geeks and the bankers. Everyone is fascinated with the wealthy, especially the super-rich. So we are fascinated when we read a report that the 85 richest people on this planet have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion. Wealth is not the same as income. Wealth is a stock, while income is a flow.
That nitty-gritty apart, everyone would like to be wealthy. But that’s easier said than done. Hence, the question, how do people become super-rich? It is all a function of greater enterprise and equal access to opportunities for everyone? Cutting across the case studies, this is the generalized template. “How do people become rich? They do so by fair means and foul, by entrepreneurship, appropriation and inheritance. They make markets and they manipulate them. They defeat the competition or they eliminate it. They gain or buy influence among the political leadership and the cultural and social elites… At an early stage the laws of gravity intervene. The richer you are, the richer you become. Equally, the poorer you are, the easier it is to fall further.” At this level of generalization, it is impossible to disagree. The case studies are well-done, well-researched and engrossing. However, as one reads, one also gets the feeling that it becomes repetitive, though the contexts are different. In a case study kind of book, some kind of conceptual framework might have helped.
High levels of inequality (of wealth and income) cause socio-economic tensions. Hence, the policy question, what does one do about controlling extreme distributions? This requires a book in itself. It is imperfectly addressed in the concluding chapter, influenced considerably by Thomas Piketty. But that’s not the main objective of the book. It panders to our vicarious interest about the lives and pursuits of the super-rich, down the ages. Barring the repetitive strand, part one was engrossing. I didn’t find much value addition in part two. Nevertheless, you learn quite a lot that is useful.