09/22/2011 04:18 pm ET | Updated Nov 22, 2011

The New Age Of Inherited Wealth

By Robert Frank of the Wall Street Journal

The release of the latest Forbes 400 List of Americans is, once again, being billed as a triumph of self-made wealth.

Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison – all self-made – topped the list, once again. And Forbes heralds that fact that “a record 70% of the Forbes listers are self-made.”

Yet their announcement obscures the fact that half of the top 10 on the Forbes list have inherited all or some of their wealth, making America’s billboard chart of opportunity look increasingly like the the lucky sperm club.

The Walton Family fortune towers over all others on the list. Christy Walton has a listed worth of $24.5 billion, Jim Walton has a listed worth of $21.1 billion, Alice Walton has a listed worth of $20.9 billion, and Robson Walton has a listed worth of $20.5 billion.

Yet if the Waltons were counted as a single family fortune – like many others on the list – they would have $87 billion, making them the richest family in America. They would easily surpass Bill Gates at the top of the list, with $59 billion. As he and Mr. Buffett give away more of their fortunes to charity, the individual Waltons could well wind up cracking the top five.

Along with the Waltons, we have the Koch brothers. They inherited the predecessor to Koch Industries from their dad. To their credit, they grew their fortune into much larger businesses, while lots of people inherit businesses and ruin them. Still, it would be a stretch to say the Koch brothers are entirely “self made.”

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