Wealth is determined by taking the total market value of all physical and intangible assets owned, then subtracting all debts. Essentially, wealth is the accumulation of resources. Specific people, organizations and nations are said to be wealthy when they are able to accumulate many valuable resources or goods.
Wealth is expressed in a variety of ways. For individuals, net worth is the most common expression of wealth, while countries measure by gross domestic product (GDP), or GDP per capita.
What Constitutes Wealth
Perceptions of what constitutes wealth changes over time among societies. The ancient Egyptians, for instance, once had a monetary system based on wheat. Some cultures have used other commodities, such as rice and salt in place of money at times. Inuit and Eskimo societies traded in seal oil and blubber, which they could eat as food, or burn as fuel to provide light and heat. African and Native American tribes once used wampum and shells as the basis of their monetary systems. Heads of cattle and livestock are still used as mediums of exchange in some cultures.
Gold and silver formed the basis of the monetary systems in many countries. However, the prices of gold and silver were subject to fluctuating price valuations and rarely remained stable for long periods. During World War II, for example, the government outlawed the private ownership of gold. Economists have argued for decades about tying the value of a government’s currency to its gold and silver reserves. The United States abandoned the gold standard during the 1970s. Instead, the U.S. dollar today is backed by the “full faith and credit of the U.S. government.
Money is the most common means of measuring wealth. The value of a product or material used as the basis for a monetary system depends on how much others are willing to trade or provide labor in exchange for it. Another factor is the degree of universal acceptance the material or commodity has. If no one outside a community is willing to accept the money in exchange for goods or services, it has no value outside of the society that uses it.
The extent to which outside forces can manipulate the value of money can have a dramatic impact on measuring wealth. One of the major problems with paper currency is that it is subject to manipulation and devaluation by the acts of one or a few individuals through counterfeiting and unscrupulous trading. Another problem is that it is relatively easy for governments and banks to manipulate the value of money by printing more and making it easy to borrow, or by printing less and increasing credit restrictions. For these reasons, financial instruments and investments, land, resources and even livestock can be used to measure and evaluate wealth.
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