NEW YORK — Nearly three decades of an economy less fettered by taxes, regulation and national borders has produced a crop of more than 1,000 billionaires, whose wealth and influence rival that of the robber barons a century ago.
Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates and investment superstar Warren Buffett head the list of luminaries in the new gilded age and, like the Carnegies, Fords and Rockefellers before them, are using their riches to usher in a new age of philanthropy with unprecedented gifts to favored causes that do everything from developing vaccines to eradicating diseases and lifting educational standards.
Fashion designer Ralph Lauren, blockbuster film producer George Lucas, and celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey - who is as adored in Africa as she is in the United States - also have amassed fortunes through their appeal to billions of fans worldwide.
But many of today’s billionaires are far from household names and how they made their money and spend it is even less understood. Entrepreneurs who invented products with universal appeal and investors who plugged into major global trends dominate the list.
The largest concentration of wealth resides on Wall Street, where the sheer volume of trillions of dollars of global trading and capital flows each day has produced untold riches for money managers at top investments banks, hedge funds, venture capital and private equity firms.
Although the expanding global economy has created an increasing number of billionaires from Moscow to Sao Paolo, Brazil, the United States - which has led the way in cutting taxes and opening and deregulating markets - still racked up the most last year - 472 out of 1,125.
“There is a widespread perception - not inaccurate - that globalization has largely benefited the wealthy,” said Jeffry Frieden, a Harvard University professor and author of “Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the 20th Century.” The book documents how the concentration of wealth in the last era of globalization helped to plant the seeds of its destruction with the rise of communism after World War I.
Then as now, the rich got richer, but everyone else seemed to benefit as well from the global economy. Consumers and investors had access to products and assets from the whole world as trade and capital flows flourished. Immigration mushroomed as people in countries with few jobs or opportunities crossed into wealthier countries, where they could make a future for themselves.
The earlier episode of globalization was brought to an abrupt end by two world wars and the rise of closed communist systems that engulfed half the globe until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Since then, a new system of global trading of unprecedented size has emerged, with 6 billion potential consumers and workers that capitalists with the right ideas and wares have moved to exploit.
“Today capitalism is at least as global as it was in the decades before 1914, which raises the specter of a return to the failures that ended that earlier episode,” especially the increasing concentration of wealth and growth of income inequality, Mr. Frieden said.
The opening of the economy has benefited billionaires, but it also has dampened the wages of workers in industries that make internationally traded goods by bringing them into competition with 2 billion unskilled workers, who previously toiled in countries largely closed to the rest of the world.
The result has been slower income growth for about 90 percent of the population, even as the vastly increased size of consumer and labor markets worldwide greatly increased the earning power of the relatively few people with the skills and money to exploit the possibilities.
Meanwhile, the gigantic flows of money across borders - aided by extensive deregulation of the financial markets and tax cuts starting in the 1980s with the arrival of Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in Britain - kicked off a competition for capital worldwide, which led to a round of competitive tax cuts among developed countries.
“It drove down taxation of capital, and that disproportionately helped the wealthy,” Mr. Frieden said at a New York seminar of the Century Foundation.