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The sources of wealth

Back in the old days, and by the old days I mean the 1980s, there were a handful of ways in which you were likely to get rich. You either inherited it, or you made it in oil or real estate. The Forbes list of the 100 richest Americans was first published in 1982 and, at that time, 60 of the people on this list had inherited their wealth. Of the 40 new fortunes on the list, about 60% were primarily related to oil or real estate. If you couldn’t inherit your money, these two industries were a good place to start.

But as Paul Graham explains in this recent essay about “how people get rich now,” this is no longer the case. On the 2020 list, there were 73 new fortunes, but only 4 stemmed from real estate and only 2 stemmed from oil. As you might imagine, today’s biggest driver is what we call tech and, more specifically, it is people founding tech companies (there are also a couple of examples of early employees doing very well). Of the 73 new fortunes last year, approximately 30 came from tech, including 8 of the top 10 fortunes on the list.

Given how many people are starting new companies today (it has become easier and cheaper) and given how many of these companies are quickly growing to big valuations (things are scaling faster), it is perhaps tempting to think about this period of time as being entirely unprecedented. Never before have we seen so many young people getting rich by starting their own company. And never before have we seen such inequality.

However, Graham argues in his essay that this period of time is the default. What we saw in the second half of the 20th century was actually an anomaly. Indeed, if you go back to the end of the 19th century, the richest people in the US were mostly people who were starting their own companies and taking advantage of new technologies, such as that of mass production.

His claim is that for the most part it wasn’t really viable to start your own company in, say, the 1960s. Instead, most people simply went to work for a big company that had some sort of oligopolistic positioning in the market. And it turns out that was pretty good for maintaining a strong middle class. Less people were getting fabulously rich. I’d like to see some more data points around entrepreneurship and wealth during this era. But regardless, I think it’s pretty clear that the dominant sources of wealth have changed.

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