Forbes 400 Richest Americans: They Didn't Do It Alone

September 24, 2004
Contact: Bob Keener

Forbes 400 Richest Americans: They Didn't Do It Alone

Private Wealth Counts on Public Investment, Infrastructure

Download the report "I Didn't Do It Alone" PDF 280 KB

"Self-serving stories of 'self-made' success may nourish the ego, but they mask the real ingredients of wealth creation and a strong economy. Where would the Forbes 400 be without public investment and infrastructure – from Google founders building on the Internet to Ross Perot and government contracts?"

–Chuck Collins, co-founder of Responsible Wealth

According to the just-released Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, 39 percent inherited at least some of their wealth and "the rest have self-made fortunes."

In fact, says Responsible Wealth, everyone on the Forbes 400 owes their wealth partly to a taxpayer-financed inheritance of public research and contracts; public schools and universities; communications, transportation and other critical infrastructure, and myriad government institutions from the Federal Reserve and the courts to the Treasury, Defense and Commerce Departments.

"It takes a village to raise a billionaire. Every taxpayer deserves some credit for Forbes 400 wealth," says Mike Lapham, co-director of Responsible Wealth. "Yet while the Forbes 400 richest Americans are doing better this year – their collective wealth rose $45 billion since 2003 – the average taxpayer is not. Median household income fell for the fourth year in a row last year."

Billionaires Warren Buffett, Ross Perot and Google's Larry Page illustrate the myth of the "self-made" label. They are all featured in Responsible Wealth's report, "I Didn't Do It Alone: Society's Contribution to Individual Wealth and Success."

Warren Buffett, No. 2 on the Forbes 400, attended a publicly supported state school, the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and is quite clear that his investment wealth depends on America's social and economic infrastructure. "I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned," said Buffett. "I happen to work in a market system that happens to reward what I do very well – disproportionately well."

Larry Page, No. 43 on the Forbes 400, co-founded Google, which went public this year. Page graduated from a state school, the University of Michigan, and then attended Stanford University for graduate work, where Google was born. Government grants underpin the lucrative research in Silicon Valley and at Stanford University. The Internet platform, without which Google would not exist, is built on a foundation of taxpayer-funded research and development.

H. Ross Perot, Jr., No. 40 on the Forbes 400, grew his company, Electronic Data Systems (later sold to General Motors), by focusing on computer systems and services for Medicare, a government program. The company's growth – and windfall profits – really took off when it began reselling the Medicare claims processing system it had developed for Texas Blue Cross under a research and development contract paid for by federal funds. By 1971, EDS owned 90% of the Medicare business in the country.

"Some Forbes 400 billionaires want to pull up the ladder behind them," says Scott Klinger, co-director of Responsible Wealth. "They received government help, but don't want anyone else to. The myth of self-made wealth is used to justify tax cuts for the rich and reduce public investment in the very institutions and infrastructure that not only enable more Americans to become wealthy, but are crucial to a strong and growing economy."

Responsible Wealth's report, "I Didn't Do It Alone: Society's Contribution to Individual Wealth and Success," co-authored by Chuck Collins, Mike Lapham and Scott Klinger, spotlights successful entrepreneurs who credit society's investment in their success.

Jim Sherblom, a venture capitalist and former chief financial officer of the biotech firm, Genzyme, observed in the report, "The opportunities to create wealth are all taking advantage of public goods – like roads, transportation, markets – and public investments. None of us can claim it was all personal initiative. A piece of it was built upon this infrastructure that we all have this inherent moral obligation to keep intact."

The report concludes that if society's role in wealth creation withers from inadequate revenues and political will, then opportunities for wealth and innovation will shrink. Entrepreneurism, the economy and society will all be undermined.

"I Didn't Do It Alone" is available on the web at

Responsible Wealth is a national network of business people and affluent Americans concerned about deepening economic inequality who advocate for widespread prosperity.

Editor's Note: Contact Bob Keener at (617) 610-6766 to arrange interviews.">Email Bob
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