The Top 0.1% Vs. Rest of Us Throughout the 20th Century

Following up on yesterday’s post about the Global Top Incomes Database, I thought I’d give an example.  Here’s what I created:

So what are we looking at?  The blue line shows almost a century of the average income of the bottom 90% of American earners (in constant, real 2008 dollars – scale on right side).  This represents the typical American worker and the fate of the working/middle classes.  Basically it shows nine different trends or periods.

  • From 1917 until 1929, there was no improvement at all (actually a dip in the 1920-21 depression).  Despite all the talk about “roaring twenties”, it wasn’t for the average American worker.
  • 1929-1933, incomes really drop precipitously as the nation falls into the Great Depression.
  • 1933-1937, incomes begin to recover based on the government spending programs of the New Deal and correction of the banking/financial crises of 1932-33.  But the progress stumbles in 1938 as Roosevelt and Congress switch course and try to balance the budget before we’re back to full employment (are you listening Obama?).
  • 1938-1943 incomes really grow dramatically as the nation regains full employment and unions gain power.  The driver of the recovery is the near unlimited willingness to spend to arm for World War II and the demand for food and other items by warring allies.
  • 1944-1949, incomes stagnate again, partly as a result of demobilization of the war effort.
  • 1949-1973 brings the Golden Age. Real economic growth in the U.S. is the strongest it’s ever been and thanks to Keynesian government policies, a productivity-sharing social contract between managements and unions, and strong world demand, the workers get their share of it.  This is the period of fastest U.S. growth.
  • 1973-1993 brings twenty years of declining real incomes for most workers.  Part of it is driven by slower growth brought on by two oil price supply shocks.  Part is inflation (although only until the mid-80’s). Part is driven by a major political shift towards conservative free market policies (“Reaganomics”).  And part is driven by a weakening of unions and union membership.  The economy, while it grows, doesn’t grow near as fast as it did in the Golden Age.
  • 1994-2000 shows a slight recovery in incomes during the Clinton administration.
  • 2001 starts another decline and it’s been pretty much downhill ever since.  Note that the graph ends in 2008 (last available data), but other more recent data indicates the time series has continued to decline significantly.

So what can we conclude from the typical worker incomes, the blue line of average incomes for the bottom 90%,?  Well, yes, as some conservatives and libertarians have been pointing out, today’s incomes are historically high – around $32,000 per worker.  And consumption by household is even higher.  But consumption has risen despite incomes stagnating recently. It’s because many, many more households now depend on two workers for incomes.  Yes today’s incomes are dramatically higher compared to 76 years ago – roughly 6 times higher. But all of the increase happened in the first 38 years after 1932.  Today’s incomes per worker are actually lower than they were in 1973 – 38 years ago.

Now let’s consider the red line.  This shows the percentage share of the national income earned received by the top 0.1%, the top one tenth of one percent.  These are the really, really rich.  There are really only three periods here.  The period before the Great Depression.  Observe that it really was a roaring twenties for the really rich.  In the decade of 1920-1929 their share of national income rose from around 3.5% to over 6.5% – all while the average American worker stagnated. The game was rigged.  As the U.S. economy grew in total GDP terms in the 20’s and as productivity soared, the benefits of that improved productivity went to the rich, not to workers.  The rich lost ground in the Great Depression because the stock market crashed and the banking system imploded.

From 1936 until 1979, the share of income taken by the top 0.1% declines rather steadily and significantly.  Why?  A dominant factor is that income tax rates were rather progressive with high rates on the very high top end.  Now this simply means that the share declined – they took a slightly smaller slice of the pie each year.  But the pie was growing very, very fast, so in dollar terms their incomes were still rising too.  Do not take away the idea that the rich suffered income declines during this period.  On contrary, they did well in absolute terms.  They just didn’t do well at the expense of others.

But in 1979 the rich strike back.  Their share of income starts rising steadily until it reaches the same very high levels today that are reminiscent of the late 1920’s.  What happened?  Well the same forces that hurt the working/middle classes during the last 30+ years worked to the rich’s advantage.  But another important shift was changes in income tax policies.  Initially Carter, but then Reagan and Bush all cut tax rates for the top end.  Reagan did even more.  He eliminated several top end brackets.  This resulted in people in the top 0.1% (multi-millionaires) now paying the same rates as people making $250,000 per year.  That didn’t happen in the Golden Age.  Back then there were special brackets for the very, very rich top end.

So what can we conclude overall?  Well, for one thing, we should definitely bury any idea of “trickle-down” tax cuts helping average workers.  When the economy grew the fastest and typical workers did best was when tax rates on the rich were high.  When tax rates on the rich are lower, the economy grows more slowly and average worker incomes stagnate.  We might also conclude that the OccupyWallStreet movement (#OWS) has a point.  The system isn’t fair and it isn’t working for average workers.  This isn’t a call for socialism, it’s a call for the vibrant capitalism we had in the mid-20th century. That Golden Age of the middle of the 20th century is the only time when we really didn’t have “class warfare”.  We had a social contract that called for sharing the gains from improved productivity. But a little over 30 years ago the really rich declared war on the rest.  It’s class warfare and the middle class has been losing. 

Income Inequality Does Matter And It Makes Us Worse Off

There is viewpoint that asserts that income inequality and wealth inequality are necessary, that they are the differences that motivate people to work and get ahead.  This viewpoint often implies that without wide income disparities that our economy’s growth would slow.  Supporters of such a viewpoint seem to suggest that the only choices we have are either:  a society of dramatic differences in income distribution or a society where everybody is equal but also poor.  This viewpoint is wrong. Absolutely wrong.  A simple review of U.S. history in the 20th century demonstrates the wrongness.  US GDP real growth in the 3 decades of 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s was much stronger than the 3 decades since 1980.  In the high-growth decades, income distribution was more equal and more fair.  Income distribution since 1980 has gotten worse.  But there’s more data to disprove the idea of “income inequality is good”.

Richard Wilkinson is a British researcher who has spent his life studying income inequality and the consequences for societies.  I strongly urge you to view in it’s entirety his TED talk on this subject.

Here are some excerpts from the transcript:

You all know the truth of what I’m going to say. I think the intuition that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive has been around since before the French Revolution. What’s changed is we now can look at the evidence, we can compare societies, more and less equal societies, and see what inequality does. I’m going to take you through that data and then explain why the links I’m going to be showing you exist.

…I want to start though with a paradox. This shows you life expectancy against gross national income –how rich countries are on average. And you see the countries on the right, like Norway and the USA, are twice as rich as Israel, Greece, Portugal on the left.And it makes no difference to their life expectancy at all. There’s no suggestion of a relationship there.But if we look within our societies, there are extraordinary social gradients in health running right across society. This, again, is life expectancy.

…Now I’m going to show you what that does to our societies. We collected data on problems with social gradients, the kind of problems that are more common at the bottom of the social ladder.Internationally comparable data on life expectancy,on kids’ maths and literacy scores, on infant mortality rates, homicide rates, proportion of the population in prison, teenage birthrates, levels of trust, obesity, mental illness — which in standard diagnostic classification includes drug and alcohol addiction — and social mobility. We put them all in one index. They’re all weighted equally. Where a country is is a sort of average score on these things.And there, you see it in relation to the measure of inequality I’ve just shown you, which I shall use over and over again in the data. The more unequal countries are doing worse on all these kinds of social problems. It’s an extraordinarily close correlation. But if you look at that same index of health and social problems in relation to GNP per capita, gross national income, there’s nothing there,no correlation anymore.

…What all the data I’ve shown you so far says is the same thing. The average well-being of our societiesis not dependent any longer on national income and economic growth. That’s very important in poorer countries, but not in the rich developed world. But the differences between us and where we are in relation to each other now matter very much.

…This is mental illness.

…This is violence.

…This is social mobility. .

The other really important point I want to make on this graph is that, if you look at the bottom, Sweden and Japan, they’re very different countries in all sorts of ways. The position of women, how closely they keep to the nuclear family, are on opposite ends of the poles in terms of the rich developed world. But another really important difference is how they get their greater equality. Sweden has huge differences in earnings, and it narrows the gap through taxation, general welfare state, generous benefits and so on. Japan is rather different though.It starts off with much smaller differences in earnings before tax. It has lower taxes. It has a smaller welfare state. And in our analysis of the American states, we find rather the same contrast.There are some states that do well through redistribution, some states that do well because they have smaller income differences before tax. So we conclude that it doesn’t much matter how you get your greater equality, as long as you get there somehow.

I am not talking about perfect equality, I’m talking about what exists in rich developed market democracies. Another really surprising part of this picture is that it’s not just the poor who are affected by inequality. There seems to be some truth in John Donne’s “No man is an island.”

I should say that to deal with this, we’ve got to deal with the post-tax things and the pre-tax things.We’ve got to constrain income, the bonus culture incomes at the top. I think we must make our bosses accountable to their employees in any way we can.I think the take-home message though is that we can improve the real quality of human life by reducing the differences in incomes between us.Suddenly we have a handle on the psychosocial well-being of whole societies, and that’s exciting.


CEO’s Pay Grows, Average Worker Pay Stagnates

The top end of the income distribution has recovered from any ill effects of the Great Recession, but the average worker has not.  CEO’s in particular saw their compensation increase 27% in 2010, while the workers at the corporations these CEO’s “lead” has barely moved.  Wonkroom notes:

Households across the country are still feeling the effects of the Great Recession, with unemployment falling very slowly, while foreclosuresarestillincreasing, along with poverty rates and oil prices. Family wealth is currently down $12.8 trillion from its 2007 peak.

However, one group of Americans is doing very well — corporate CEOs, whose pay is returning to pre-recession levels:

At a time most employees can barely remember their last substantial raise, median CEO pay jumped 27% in 2010 as the executives’ compensation started working its way back to prerecession levels, a USA TODAY analysis of data from GovernanceMetrics International found. Workers in private industry, meanwhile, saw their compensation grow just 2.1%in the 12 months ended December 2010, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Median CEO pay last year was $9 million, the highest since 2007. The median CEO bonuswas $2.2 million. These gains come as income inequality in the U.S. is already the worst its been since 1928. “We have the recipe for controversy over CEO pay: big increases in CEO pay that show up following run-ups in stock prices coupled with high unemployment rates,” said Kevin Murphy, professor of finance at the University of Southern California…

But raising taxes on millionaires is not, in fact, the same as raising taxes on job creators. According to a recent Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, an overwhelming majority of Americans (81 percent) say that adding a surtax on millionaires is an acceptable way to reduce the budget deficit. …

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) recently released a bill that would implement a graduated income tax on millionaires that would raise $78 billion. Allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for those making more than $1 million could, in one instant, reduce eight percent of the medium-term budget deficit.

If the goal is truly to reduce or eliminate the deficit (a goal I do not share), then restoring taxes on these millionaires and CEO’s must be part of the agenda.  As noted previously, if we simply do nothing and let the existing laws on the books, especially letting the Bush-era preferential tax treatments for the highest bracket taxpayers expire, we can eliminate the primary deficit.

In the past, prior to the Reagan years, we had high marginal  tax rates for the highest income brackets.   For much of the 1950’s and 1960’s and early 1970’s, the highest marginal tax rates were between 70% and often as high as 91%. (source: Tax Foundation) Now this is marginal rates, the rate paid on income above the specified level, not the average paid on all income. Nobody pays the marginal rate on all their income.  At the time, the top bracket started at $200,000 or $250,000 for a married filing jointly return.  Given inflation, these are brackets that would be comparable to a $1,000,000 or so today.  The nation did not suffer for job creation in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Yet, once we brought the top tax rates down into the 33-36% range during the Reagan years and ever since, we have suffered from low job formation relative to the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Even if we limit ourselves to just the 30 years since Reagan radically reduced the top marginal tax rates, we see that Clinton, who raised the top rate to 39% in 1993 had the best job creation record.  Clearly, low marginal tax rates on CEO’s and millionaires does not help create jobs. But, it does make the government deficit bigger.  Just a little food for thought as you file your taxes this year.

Income Inequality Widening for Both Men and Women

Income distribution changes, namely, the rich getting richer and the bottom half struggling to stay even is true for both men and women.  It is only partly explained by educational level. Mark Thoma extracts from a CBO report about how workers’ hourly compensation (wages) have changed from 1979 to 2009:

Changes in the Distribution of Workers’ Hourly Wages Between 1979 and 2009

Empty Threats

One argument often provided for against raising the state taxes on rich individuals and large corporations is the belief that higher taxes will simply cause them to move to low-tax states.  Now there’s data on how serious the threat to move is: not very. Yves Smith at naked capitalism writes of a study by Young and Varner. In a nutshell, using New Jersey as a test case since it raised taxes to very high levels for the rich yet is very close to neighboring states which makes moving plausible, they found the tax increase worked. A less than 0.1 response of people moving and net the tax raised a billion dollars and reduced income inequality modestly. Even stronger evidence was provided by a study of Swiss cantons. See complete comments at the link.

Quelle Surprise! Tax Increases on Rich Do Not Lead to Exodus

A solid paper by Cristobal Young and Charles Varner, “Millionaire Migration and State Taxation of Top Incomes” (hat tip Matt) helps debunk the idea that high income individuals will pull up stakes if their taxes go up. The case study is an interesting one: New Jersey’s tax increases on top earners. New Jersey made the biggest increase of all US states, and also has the distinction of having a low income tax state (Connecticut) nearby, meaning that tax-sensitive residents had an option of moving not all that far to escape the increase, which presumably would allow them to maintain family ties.

Screen shot 2011-02-09 at 3.16.11 AM

The study results might be labeled “Millionaires are People Too.” Economists and lobbyists love to stress often base their arguments upon economic rationality and contend that everyone is out to maximize his personal bottom line. But moving is a hassle and costly, and most people’s social lives are grounded in their community and their workplace. Relocating is likely to result in a longer commute for those still employed, would cause disruption to any children still in school and would weaken many existing social relationships. ..

…The general conclusion of the paper is plausible: that moderate tax increases on the rich, even if no neighboring jurisdictions follow suit, is unlikely to lead to much in the way of emigration and will thus be a net plus in terms of tax receipts.

Income Inequality and Financial Crisis

The Great Recession of 2007-9, like the Great Depression in 1929-33, was triggered by a massive financial crisis: stock market crash, falling asset prices, bank failures, and liquidity crisis. One of the key triggers of instability in banking and the resulting financial crises is what economists call “over-leverage”, meaning too much (private) credit and too much (private) borrowing relative to incomes. When the crisis hits, people start to “de-leverage”, that is pay-off debts and/or write-them-off in bankruptcy.  The process of de-leveraging forces people to use more of their incomes to pay off debt and less on spending. The decline in spending causes a decline in GDP, leading to layoffs, and a downward spiral.

Many of us have been intuitively saying that this over-leveraging (over-borrowing and going into debt) is the result of rising income inequality. Now Michael Kumhoff and Romaine Ranciere have published a study and a formal model to explain how such a process works. They note:

Of the many origins of the global crisis, one that has received comparatively little attention is income inequality. This column provides a theoretical framework for understanding the connection between inequality, leverage and financial crises. It shows how rising inequality in a climate of rising consumption can lead poorer households to increase their leverage, thereby making a crisis more likely.

They further show the similarities between 1929 and 2008.  It’s striking. As income inequality increases, i.e. the rich get richer faster, the rest have to go further into debt to maintain lifestyle or lifestyle progress. Overall debt and leverage rises until a crisis happens and the crash begins.

Figure 1 plots the evolution of the share of total income commanded by the top 5% of households (ranked by income) against household debt to GNP or GDP ratios in the two decades preceding 1929 and 2008. The income share of the top 5% increased from 24% in 1920 to 34% in 1928, and from 22% in 1983 to 34% in 2007. During the same two periods, the ratio of household debt to GNP or to GDP increased dramatically. It almost doubled between 1920 and 1932, and also between 1983 and 2008, when it reached much higher levels than in 1932.

Figure 1. Income Inequality and Household Leverage


Excerpt is copyright by, at Inequality, leverage and crises by Michael Kumhof Romain Rancière

Income Inequality: Worse in US than Egypt/Tunisia

Washington’s blog observes:

Egyptian, Tunisian and Yemeni protesters all say that inequality is one of the main reasons they’re protesting.However, the U.S. actually has much greater inequality than in any of those countries.

Specifically, the “Gini Coefficient” – the figure economists use to measure inequality – is higher in the U.S.

Global Map of Income Inequality Gini Coefficients by Country

[Click for larger image]

Gini Coefficients are like golf – the lower the score, the better (i.e. the more equality).

According to the CIA World Fact Book, the U.S. is ranked as the 42nd most unequal country in the world, with a Gini Coefficient of 45.

In contrast:

  • Tunisia is ranked the 62nd most unequal country, with a Gini Coefficient of 40.
  • Yemen is ranked 76th most unequal, with a Gini Coefficient of 37.7.
  • And Egypt is ranked as the 90th most unequal country, with a Gini Coefficient of around 34.4.

And inequality in the U.S. has soared in the last couple of years, since the Gini Coefficient was last calculated, so it is undoubtedly currently much higher.
So why are Egyptians rioting, while the Americans are complacent?

Well, Americans – until recently – have been some of the wealthiest people in the world, with most having plenty of comforts (and/or entertainment) and more than enough to eat.

But another reason is that – as Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School demonstrate – Americans consistently underestimate the amount of inequality in our nation.

As William Alden wrote last September:

Americans vastly underestimate the degree of wealth inequality in America, and we believe that the distribution should be far more equitable than it actually is, according to a new study.

Or, as the study’s authors put it: “All demographic groups — even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy — desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo.”

The report … “Building a Better America — One Wealth Quintile At A Time” by Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School … shows that across ideological, economic and gender groups, Americans thought the richest 20 percent of our society controlled about 59 percent of the wealth, while the real number is closer to 84 percent.

I accept the protesters at their word that inequality is a major part of what’s driving the protests, even though relative to the rest of the world, their income inequality is rather middling – certainly not as bad as the U.S.  As to why income inequality should fuel protests in Egypt/Tunisia while not in the U.S. where it is much worse, I suggest that age and expectations are part of it also.  Ariely, Norton, and Alden have a good point: Americans are largely ignorant of just how narrowly concentrated wealth and income are in the U.S..  It’s part of U.S. culture to pretend that everyone is equal or at least has an equal opportunity to become stinking rich, no matter how unlikely that truly is.

I think another factor has to do with age as my previous post points out. The power of income inequality to enrage and fuel revolution depends also on expectations and age as well as perception.  In the U.S., we do not perceive the inequality. We are generally older and older people are more interested in security and stability (death and old age is more real to them and adventure less attractive). Finally, our culture in the U.S. conditions us to expect that if we aren’t rich now, we could become richer soon. In Tunisia and Egypt I surmise, the young adults not accurately perceive the injustice and unequal distribution of wealth/income, but they likewise do not perceive that their prospects for the future are bright unless they revolt. They do not perceive that things have or are changing and so they need to push the change.