Why maths matters.

Today sees the launch of this year's Sunday Times Rich List. And with it comes the annual spleen-venting from normal people that could only dream of achieving the success of those listed.

The headline is that "the newspaper's research found the combined worth of the country's 1,000 wealthiest people is £414bn, up 4.7%."

Now if your not that good with numbers you will possibly be prejudiced against those in the list. Firstly, the way that the wealth is calculated is, at best, guesswork. The editors of the list state: "We measure identifiable wealth, whether land, property, racehorses, art or significant shares in publicly quoted companies. We exclude bank accounts—to which we have no access... We try to give due consideration to liabilities."

If you have watched any of the antique programmes in an afternoon (e.g. Cash in the Attic, not The House of Lords) then you see how experts got the valuation of simple items wildly wrong. So I imagine that valuation is based on known sale values, not current or future worth.

Anyway, back to the point about maths. If the country's 1000 wealthiest people have increased their wealth by 4.7% to £414bn, how much has that been increased by?

Well last year's wealth x 1.047 = £414bn. That means that "last year" = £414bn/1.047 = about £18.5bn. That's £18 500 000 000. If you share that out equally between the 1000 people they get £18 500 000 each. That's what £18.5 million looks like.

Now, before you start being annoyed at these people, consider this. Their wealth (value guessed at) has only risen by 4.7%. Ignore the actual money at the moment. For every £1 they were worth last year, they are now worth £1.05.

I think I know of people who have increased their wealth this year way above that rate. I don't mean that they have billions of pounds but that they seem to have acquired goods that are worth more now than last year. For example, I had a Blackberry smart phone last year. I now have an iPhone 4. Perhaps you know of similar wealth gains?

However we need to look at the social consideration of such uneven wealth distribution as shown by the Rich List.

What if the £18.5bn increase was given to the 62,218,761 people of the UK? That would give every man, woman and child nearly £300 each. But the point is that the 1000 members of the rich list have on average received the equivalent of nearly £300 from each of us. Clearly people get more wealthy due to other people giving them money for things they sell or make.

Think of your friends. Think of your self. Has your wealth increased this year? In percentage terms is it above or below The Times Rich List.

But the key point is surely this. 4.7% is just that. 4.7%.