The fantastic fates of fictional characters are being outstripped by the assets of flesh-and-blood tycoons. Should we fear this detonation of super-wealth?

Every so often Forbes, the publication closely associated with America’s corporate upper-clas, compiles its Fictional Fifteen– a map of the wealthiest characters in movie and literature, to complement its well-known annual list of the world’s wealthiest individuals.

After carefully assessing the assets of the likes of Bruce Wayne and Montgomery Burns, its most recent analysis concluded that Scrooge McDuck– mining tycoon and uncle of Donald Duck- was top, with an estimated net worth of $65 bn, narrowly beating the dragon Smaug.

But perhaps the most remarkable feature of an wholly remarkable listing is rarely noted: the degree to which fictional billionaires have lost ground to real-life ones. According to Forbes, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon with an estimated fortune of $98 bn, has recently overtaken Bill Gates to become the world’s richest human. It seems we have reached the degree whenever there is people in the world richer than we were able imagining.

Amazon’s share price has risen five-fold in as many years. If it continues at anything like this rate, Bezos, still merely 53 years old, can expect to be worth hundreds of billions over the next decade. Indeed, a century since John D Rockefeller became the world’s first recorded billionaire, the prospect of the world’s first-ever trillionaire is now a serious possibility.

A trillion- at least by American guessing– is a thousand billion dollars, or roughly the GDP of Mexico, and Bezos is leading a pack made up not only of technologists but likewise energy, finance, mining and retail tycoons from across North America, Europe and Asia. Their rankings and fortunes fluctuate daily in line with inventory and commodity costs, but even if Bezos doesn’t get there we can be reasonably certain that the world’s first trillionaire will be male- there are only a dozen women in Forbes’ top hundred list, and none in the top 10.

Not so long ago, a trillionaire would have seemed almost as improbable as a mine-owning duck, and many were unconvinced when Oxfam speculated in January that it could happen within the next 25 years. But the last 12 months alone have visualized the German, US and UK stock markets all hitting record levels, along with robust economic growth and a resurgence in oil and commodities values. Already, based on the results of its market capitalisation, Apple is close to becoming the world’s first trillion-dollar company, and all this is before Donald Trump’s fiscal reforms take effect, slashing tax rates for the very wealthiest.

Jeff Bezos has recently overtakes Bill Gates to become the world’s richest man. Photograph: Alex Wong/ Getty Images

According to the newly-published World Inequality Report, this increase in wealth accumulation by the most prosperous is an example of a longer-term trend: since 1980, the richest 0.1% of the world population increased its combined wealth by as much as the bottom 50%. The pattern is far from consistent: inequality has increased moderately in Europe, but rapidly in China and Russia as the countries have abandoned communism. It has been particularly pronounced in the US, which 30 years ago was comparable to western Europe, but has returned to the same high levels of inequality that existed prior to the second world war, and is now home to four of the 5 richest men on countries around the world.

For Gabriel Zucman, economist at University of California and part of the team that produced the report, it is government policy rather than the changing nature of economic production that is mainly responsible.” There has been a number of armies leading to an increase in revenues and wealth inequality, but the most important ones are changes in policies: reduction in progressive income and wealth taxation; reduction in the power of unions; a fall in the minimum wage and privatisation of public assets .”

The worry with extreme wealth

Scrooge McDuck lives in the hilltop town of Duckburg, where he likes to sit on his heap of amber coins. But while the real super-rich tend to register their financial affairs in similarly obscure places, they rarely expend much time in them.

Many of them, of course, had now become major philanthropists, and it is highly likely that the world’s first trillionaire will do the same. Bill Gates is now almost as famous for his health programmes in these developing countries as he is for his business achievements, and the transparency and rigour with which his foundation works has been largely applauded.

According to Jessica Toale, executive director of the Centre for Development Results, an organisation supporting the aid sector:” At the most appropriate, major philanthropic donors have not only brought monies, but have also created the bar to its implementation of determining strategic objectives, supporting innovation and house an indication base for what works .”

Indian schoolchildren celebrate the 60 th birthday of Bill Gates in Chennai. Photo: Reuters

Bezos is yet to establish a charitable foundation on anything like the scale of assessments of Gates, but “hes having” donated more than $60 m to cancer research. He is also not the only tech billionaire to be fascinated by space travel, and has repeatedly spoken of his eyesight for humankind to colonise the solar system. As well as founding and investing heavily in Blue Origin, an aerospace producer and spaceflights corporation, he has a ardour for spacecraft reclamation and has expended large sums on salvage missions, recovering rocket portions from the Apollo space programme that had been lost at sea.

According to Dr Will Davies, co-director of the Political Economy Research Centre at Goldsmiths College:” While much philanthropy is entirely virtuous, there are obvious dangers. When firms make donations in areas, often they find themselves pushing their strategic interests. The fret with extreme wealth is that it allows individuals to support potentially more outlandish agendas, and to cultivate pet projects that can grow into whole new academic fields .”

Other billionaires have more grounded concerns, committing fund to education, the arts and regeneration. In so doing, they have often become influential in shaping national policies and public affairs , not to mention metropoli administration and the urban realm. In the UK, for instance, the Conservative peer Lord Harris has stimulated substantial donations to schools and colleges, becoming a driving force in the government’s Free School program. In the US, the collective wealth of Donald Trump’s initial cabinet assessed at $14 bn, with many of them having donated to his campaign.

Bezos was a supporter of Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election and has occasionally given money to Democrat candidates. While there is nothing new about tycoons donating to registered political party, as their wealth has increased, so has the extent of specific activities- including orchestrating campaigns, taking positions in government and standing for office.

While Donald Trump might be the most striking instance, he did not set the template. Michael Bloomberg operated New York for a decade, Silvio Berlusconi employed his wealth and media assets to dominate Italian politics, while Andrej Babis, one of the richest humankinds in Eastern Europe, has recently been elected premier of the Czech Republic after founding his own registered political party. According to Davies, these developments should be cause for profound concern:” The problem of corporate money having a damaging effect on democracy through lobbying has been supplemented by vast wealth in the hands of private individuals. This has the seeds of new type of oligarchy, reproduced by families over generations, able to influence policy and democracy with relative ease .”

The first great industrial titans were challenged by lawmakers, who introduced taxes and even broke up Rockefeller’s Standard Oil with anti-trust legislation. This makes Zucman hope that it is still possible to tame world inequality, in the way that it was in the mid-2 0th century, although he feels that governments and trans-national bodes are not doing nearly enough to address it. Rather, he thinks we will need to” invent new organizations, adapted to the realities and the problems of 21 st-century capitalism “.

Davies agrees that” the moment is ripe for a populist reaction against these concentrations of wealth “, which could be channelled against engineering monopolies such as Amazon, but fears regulators and governments have lost much of their authority in our present political culture. For Davies, the rise of the super-wealthy has run hand-in-hand with a” successful conservative ideology which, supported by the right-wing media, has created the sense that the super-rich are less dangerous than government bureaucrats .”

Thus, in the absence of action, contemporary geopolitics is increasingly resembling that of medieval Europe, when power and wealth were synonymous, and the ruler was not only the dominant political figure in civilization, but also the richest landowner. As public policies and business interests strengthen one another, this trend is almost certain to continue for many years to come.

It may or may not be Jeff Bezos, but when the world does create its first trillionaire, there is every likelihood that many of us will not simply be admiring, envying or resenting him- we will also be ruled by him.

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