America is home to 735 billionaires with a collective worth greater than $4.7 trillion, according to Forbes. There were just 424 billionaires in 2012, Forbes found, and only 243 a decade before that. The billionaires keep multiplying.

In this article, Willy Staley uses information from the first billionaire count — commissioned in 1981 by the entrepreneur Malcolm Forbes for his own magazine — to consider the reasons behind the rapid increase in American billionaires, but also the changing attitudes on publicizing the details of one’s wealth.

In addition to outlining how the American billionaire class has swelled, Staley comments on the shifting fiscal system, referencing the historian Jonathan Levy, who describes the era of capitalism we live in as the “Age of Chaos” — “a time in which capital has become more footloose, liquid and volatile” at the whim of booms and busts, and which contrasts to the “staid order” and “shared prosperity” of the industrial postwar economy.

Many factors enabled American entrepreneurs to amass such enormous fortunes, including the Reagan administration’s policies, the arrival of computer technology, the creation of a more globalized economy and the rise of the developing world.

Yet despite the conspicuous consumption this level of wealth often encourages, Staley finds that few billionaires want to be discovered. So how do you keep tabs on America’s billionaires?


Additional production for The Sunday Read was contributed by Emma Kehlbeck, Parin Behrooz, Anna Diamond, Sarah Diamond, Jack D’Isidoro, Elena Hecht, Desiree Ibekwe, Tanya Pérez, Marion Lozano, Naomi Noury, Krish Seenivasan, Corey Schreppel, Margaret Willison, Kate Winslett and Tiana Young. Special thanks to Mike Benoist, Sam Dolnick, Laura Kim, Julia Simon, Lisa Tobin, Blake Wilson and Ryan Wegner.

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