“Mother forgive me. God forgive me.” In one of the final scenes of Orson Welles’s brilliant (though tragically mutilated) 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons, the fallen aristocratic scion George Amberson Minafer sits alone in despairing repose the day before leaving his family estate for the last time. “Tomorrow,” says the director in his voice-over narration, “they were to move out. Tomorrow everything would be gone.” Welles’s powerful tale of dynastic decline is also a story about industrial capitalism eating its own, the Amberson fortune and the quintessentially nineteenth-century version of Midwestern wealth that it represents being supplanted by that of the rival Morgan family, whose enterprise is the automobile.
The narrative is a potent one, not least because the relentlessly spoiled George ultimately gets his comeuppance, and the Amberson empire crumbles (though Welles’s original cut was fatally compromised by the bigwigs at RKO Pictures, who tacked on an unforgivably contrived happy ending). It’s also not without precedent in the famous fortunes of the first Gilded Age, a few of which, albeit less dramatically, really did dissipate into historical footnotes.
For that reason, there’s a compelling argument to be made that America’s new Gilded Age is even less meritocratic than its first — as newly published research from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) strongly suggests. “Silver Spoon Oligarchs: How America’s 50 Largest Inherited-Wealth Dynasties Accelerate Inequality” details the astonishingly dangerous scale of dynastic wealth in the twenty-first century. But it also makes clear how a combination of skewed tax policies, accrued political power and social influence, and raw, unrestrained greed have enabled such fortunes to grow exponentially since the 1980s — enshrining an economic caste system essentially impervious to the kinds of forces that claimed the fictional Ambersons and a few of their real-world equivalents.
As of last year, America’s fifty richest family dynasties held a total of $1.2 trillion in assets (for comparison, the bottom half of households, roughly 65 million families, holds only about twice that amount). Since 1983, this wealth has grown at ten times the rate of the typical family: the twenty-seven billionaire dynasties listed on the Forbes 400 list that year saw their combined fortunes grow by more than 1000 percent over the last thirty-seven years (from $80.2 billion to $903.2 billion, adjusted for inflation).
“The ranks of America’s dynastic fortunes,” write the IPS’s Chuck Collins and his coauthors, “have remained largely unchanged for decades, and are becoming increasingly persistent over time.” Of the fifty dynasties listed on the Forbes Billion-Dollar Dynasties list last year, in fact, more than half were also included in the Forbes 400 index back in 1983. Fortunes of this kind experiencing significant decline are rare to nonexistent today. Despite paying out billions in settlements and seeing their company file for bankruptcy, even the opioid-peddling Sackler family is still worth a reported $10.8 billion (dropping in the Forbes index from the 16th to the 30th spot).
The simplest and most obvious explanation for this new hereditary feudalism is tax policy, which has been growing ever more lax toward the ultrawealthy for the past several decades: rates of income, estate, and capital gains taxes have all been steadily reduced. By exploiting various legal avenues and loopholes, as the IPS’s research demonstrates, wealthy dynasties are also often able to avoid paying taxes altogether — a fact reflected in the offhand 2017 remark made by Donald Trump’s National Economic Council director Gary Cohn that “only morons pay the estate tax.”
This system, of course, wasn’t built in a vacuum. As the report documents, America’s dynastic superrich have played a very active role in tilting the playing field in their own favor: pouring untold sums into lobbying efforts, political campaigns, weaponized philanthropy enterprises, and billionaire-friendly think tanks to help entrench their positions atop the country’s gilded ruling class.
It’s yet another reminder that the foundational narrative of American capitalism — that of a free and meritocratic order that rewards hard work, social value, and innovation — is essentially a myth. Wealth is power, and, in an unequal society, the wealthy minority has vastly more power than the rest of us to rig the rules in its favor — and ultimately perpetuate itself across generations.