Housing starts were up last quarter, which is good news for everyone who's been living on canned soup and sending their résumés to Monster.com. Economists say that signals the beginning of the end of the recession, which is just in time. Along with all the other financial mayhem we've endured, there now appears to be a critical shortage of billionaires.

This troubling revelation comes from Forbes magazine's annual survey of rich people, which found just 497 billionaires around the world - down from 538 last year. Even more distressing, their average net worth slid from $3.2 billion to $3.1 billion, with only 23 percent managing to add to their wealth during these lean times. One shudders think of the additional carnage if we hadn't gotten that tax cut.

"Some of these sob stories," says Forbes, "are downright painful." Bill Gates, for example, lost a whopping $6 billion last year, though he still managed to remain Billionaire Number One. (This isn't, of course, like you or me misplacing our wallets: "Honey, I think I lost $6 billion somewhere." "Are you sure? Look in your other pants.")

Americans concerned about these newly disadvantaged billionaires can get the full story at (http://www.forbes.com), which includes a map showing "Where They Live: Net Worth & Hometowns" - presumably so you can stop by sometime and cheer them up.

Nine of the top 10 billionaires this year are Americans, the exception being Germans Karl and Theo Albrecht, who still own plenty of Americana. Forbes points out that the "reclusive brothers ... haven't been photographed in decades."

Not so with the others, from whose current head shots Forbes assembled a variety of exciting slide shows, letting you peruse the billionaires hands-free. Choose categories such as "Gambling Fortunes," "New Faces," and "Bachelors." The layout looks a little like the Jeopardy! board, so resist the impulse to shout, "Asian Tycoons for $200, Alex!"

Forbes' billionaire bios are wonderful as well. Oracle's Lawrence Ellison ($23.5 billion, ranking number five) is known for "his enormous Bay Area home, boundless ambition, and disdain for Bill Gates."

Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's survivors fill the billionaire ranks from six through 10, showing just how much a clever businessman can accumulate while selling discount-priced underwear in Arkansas.

And, you can also learn more about disposable income around the world, with articles such as "From Comrade to Capitalist: Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Journey from Communist Youth League Member to Russia's Richest Man."

One box on the Web page has a particularly intriguing offer: "Get news and e-mail updates about any billionaire on the list throughout the year." Tempting, but we declined because we're already so far behind in answering e-mails for pornography, inkjet cartridges, and marijuana substitutes.

Forbes has so much to tell that it's a wonder the magazine hasn't put out a line of billionaire trading cards, which would let the kids could play along. ("I'll give you two Warren Buffets for a Paul Allen." "Make it two Paul Allens and a Walton heir - but I get to keep the gum.")

And it would be good if Forbes revealed more about how the billionaires acquired their booty. Some sort of code would be helpful, e.g.: (1) really big accounting error, (2) inherited from dead relative, (3) looted 401(k) plan from unsuspecting employees.

Ironically, on the same day Forbes released its list, the Internal Revenue Service reported it had increased audits of low- and middle-income Americans, while audits of wealthy taxpayers continued to decline - more good news for those beleaguered billionaires.

"Mind if we come in? We're from the IRS."

"Didn't you see our return? Last year we were poor, now we're flat broke."

"We just wanted to make sure."

Copyright 2002 Newrite, Inc. All rights reserved. GLW's on WGN Radio 720. E-mail and listen at (http://www.wgnradio.com).

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