Would Mitt Romney Be the Richest U.S. President Ever?

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Not even close. George Washington's land made him far wealthier. But still, Romney is worth more than the last eight presidents, combined, times two. Should you care?

615 romney pointing wealth.jpg

Reuters

GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney is worth as much as $200 million, the candidate has said, thanks to his considerable investment fortune. If Romney won election in November, he would become the richest commander-in-chief in the last half century. If you doubled the combined wealth of the last eight presidents, from Nixon to Obama, you would begin to approximate the Romney's fortune, USA Today reported.

Romney's wealth has become a kind of lightening rod among many of his critics. But the most famous presidents in history have also been among the richest. In fact, the wealthiest president -- perhaps the only one richer than Romney, when you factor out inheritance -- is George Washington, whose 60,000 acres of land contributed to his $500+ million fortune. An analysis by 24/7 Wall St. last year estimated the net worth of every U.S. president based on land, salary, and investments, all adjusted for inflation. Here are the results, listed chronologically:

Presidential wealth doesn't tell us much about presidents. But it does tell us quite a bit about the times they lived.

For the first 75 years after Washington's election, we were an agricultural economy, and most presidents made their money on land, crops, and commodity speculation. Presidential fortunes fluctuated wildly in the early years partly because, lacking a national banking system or sensible regulation, recessions were deeper and asset values rose and fell with alarming frequency. The panic of 1819, for example, was the result of a spectacular fall in the price of cotton and other commodities that devastated real estate. The panic of 1837 caused a depression that lasted six years for many of the same reasons. These panics show up in presidential net worth figures.

Beginning with Millard Fillmore in 1850, the financial history of the presidency entered a new era:

Most presidents were lawyers who spent years in public service. They rarely amassed large fortunes and their incomes often came almost entirely from their salaries. From Fillmore to Garfield, these presidents were distinctly middle-class. They often retired without the money to support themselves in anywhere near the fashion they were accustomed to while in office. Buchanan, Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, and Garfield had almost no net worth at all. 

Similarly, Mitt Romney's wealth is a symbol of another era: The spectacular runaway wealth of the financier class in the last 30 years. In 2005, the financial sector made up about 18 percent of what Timothy Noah has called the "Really and Stinking Rich," which is those making more than $1.7 million in a year (Romney made $20 million in 2010). Between 1998 and 2007, financial profits made up 30 percent of all domestic corporate profits, more than twice their share in the 1980s. Call it the financialization of the uber-wealthy.

The fact that Romney's net worth is greater than the sum of the last eight presidents times two is the kind of statistic you might throw away as meaningless trivia. But it's also the perfect summation of income inequality, which is most extreme among the extremely wealthy. Like his tax return, Mitt Romney's wealth is absolutely not an indictment of the candidate, but rather a lens into a policy question. As our 45th president, he would belong to a proud tradition of commanders-in-chief whose fortunes are microcosms of their eras.

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Derek Thompson & 24/7 Wall St.

Derek Thompson is an associate editor at The Atlantic. 24/7 Wall St. is a Delaware-based financial news and opinion operation.

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