Economic researchers have made an amazing discovery that supports the notion of American exceptionalism – a discovery about wealth in Italy.
The wealthiest families in modern Florence are descended from that city’s wealthiest families almost 600 years ago, according to a Bank of Italy study detailed in The Wall Street Journal. The report was based on data from a 1427 Florentine tax census and 2011 tax information. The correlation was made possible because, in part, Italian surnames are regional and distinctive and could thus be tracked across the centuries.
“The top earners among the current [Florentine] taxpayers were found to have already been at the top of the socioeconomic ladder six centuries ago,” according to the report.
Some of those top earners are descended from successful 15th-century shoemakers, according to the report.
While wealth and status are routinely passed down across the generations in every culture –many of Japan’s social elites are descendants of samurai – the scope and length of the Florentine transfer is unusual, especially given the upheaval the city has experienced since 1427. Florence has been an independent city-state ruled by the Medici family, a republic, a part of the Kingdom of Italy, and a jewel of the unified Italian state. It’s been conquered repeatedly, including by the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon and the Nazis.
The researchers say the persistence of wealth was most pronounced among the wealthiest families. While these clans haven’t necessarily grown richer over the years, the researchers suggest there is a “glass floor” that keeps the richest Florentines from falling too far down the ladder.
I suspect the lack of competition is one thing that helps the Italian rich stay rich. Italy is a notoriously difficult place to start and run a business, especially someone attempting to bootstrap their way into an industry. The employment laws alone make it hard for companies to stay nimble and competitive.
Nor is Italy especially known for innovation. Quality craftsmanship, for sure, but not new ideas and products.
America different and special in this regard. In nearly every generation, many of our wealthiest citizens were those who were involved in bringing powerful new products to the marketplace – electricity, mass-market automobiles, personal computers, social media. It’s relatively easy to start and operate a business in this country, and our culture accepts failure as a step on the road to success.
So, yes, 600 years from now Mark Zuckerberg’s descendants might be traveling first class via spaceship to a posh resort on the moon. But they’ll be joined on that trip by any number of newly wealthy American innovators and entrepreneurs.