Sept. 21, 2011 -- Despite the stalled economy, the nation's wealthiest are worth a combined $1.53 trillion, nearly equivalent to the GDP of our neighbor Canada. Their total wealth is up 12 percent in the year through August 26, when we took a snapshot of everyone's net worth, meaning these affluent folks did slightly better than the markets; the S&P 500, for instance, was up 10 percent in that time.
But it's not simply a case of the rich getting richer. The Forbes 400 grows more meritocratic over time. An all-time high 70 percent of this year's list are self-made, up from 55 percent in 1997.
Bill Gates was the richest person for the 18th straight year, worth $59 billion; the last time he didn't rank no. 1 was in 1993 when his good friend Warren Buffett was on top. Buffett, who's been spending a lot of time talking about raising taxes on the rich, is still no. 2 but the gap is widening. His fortune tumbled $6 billion in the past year, making him the biggest loser in terms of total dollars. He gave away $3.27 billion since last year's rankings but was also pinched by a 10 percent drop in Berkshire Hathaway's stock.
Rounding out the top 10 on The Forbes 400: Oracle founder Larry Ellison ($33 billion), industrialists Charles and David Koch ($25 billion apiece), Wal-Mart heirs Christy Walton ($24.5 billion), Jim C. Walton ($21.1 billion) and Alice Walton ($20.9 billion), hedge fund investor George Soros ($22 billion), and casino king Sheldon Adelson ($21.5 billion). The headlines in our 30th year of The Forbes 400 belong not to the old stalwarts but to a younger group of entrepreneurs marching their way up the ranks, particularly those who are profoundly impacting social behavior online. These entrepreneurs are using technology to unleash power and make fortunes, and it is these folks who will likely help jump start the American economy again.
Leading the pack is Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, who added $10.6 billion to his fortune, making him the year's biggest gainer and pushing him into the top 20 for the first time – he ranks no. 14 with a net worth of $17.5 billion. That puts him ahead of Google rivals Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who added $1.7 billion apiece to their fortunes but slipped five spots in the rankings and are tied at no. 15.
The hoodie-clad 27-year-old Zuckerberg is one of six club members to get rich from Facebook. Others include newcomers Sean Parker and Jim Breyer, Facebook's venture capitalist, as well as Zuckerberg's former roommate Dustin Moskovitz, whose birthday is eight days after the Facebook chief's, making him America's youngest billionaire. Three other social media mavens made their debut including LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman, Groupon's Eric Lefkofsky and Zynga's Mark Pincus.
Other notable entrepreneurs among the 18 newcomers include Green Mountain Coffee's Bob Stiller, Go Daddy's Bob Parsons, and energy tycoons Farris and Dan Wilks. Six people including Starbucks' Howard Schultz and Quicken's Dan Gilbert returned to the list after a year or more absence.
Three members of last year's list have died: John Anderson, William Cook and Jess Jackson. Twenty-one missed the cut including at least a dozen billionaires, like University of Phoenix's John Sperling, whose net worths were just shy of $1.05 billion, the price of admission in 2011.