Wealth inequality in the USA


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Long piece in Time on the cumulative effects of inequitable income distribution after 1975. As the piece also points out, it's not just about the money itself. It's about what we're not doing with the money we're not making, not getting taxed on, not allocating to investments in infrastructure, public health, education, all the things that make a nation resilient and competitive.

The article is food for thought no matter who wins the 2020 elections: it's time to switch up this misbegotten trend in our economic affairs while we can still do it peacefully, through better exercise of our rights to representative government. Those don't end at the ballot box, they're supposed to extend to the in-box and voicemails and offices of our Congress critters and state legislators. Make those calls after you vote. Keep the heat on. The country's fate depends on it.

This is not some back-of-the-napkin approximation. According to a groundbreaking new working paper by Carter C. Price and Kathryn Edwards of the RAND Corporation, had the more equitable income distributions of the three decades following World War II (1945 through 1974) merely held steady, the aggregate annual income of Americans earning below the 90th percentile would have been $2.5 trillion higher in the year 2018 alone. That is an amount equal to nearly 12 percent of GDP—enough to more than double median income—enough to pay every single working American in the bottom nine deciles an additional $1,144 a month. Every month. Every single year.

Price and Edwards calculate that the cumulative tab for our four-decade-long experiment in radical inequality had grown to over $47 trillion from 1975 through 2018. At a recent pace of about $2.5 trillion a year, that number we estimate crossed the $50 trillion mark by early 2020. That’s $50 trillion that would have gone into the paychecks of working Americans had inequality held constant—$50 trillion that would have built a far larger and more prosperous economy—$50 trillion that would have enabled the vast majority of Americans to enter this pandemic far more healthy, resilient, and financially secure.

At every income level up to the 90th percentile, wage earners are now being paid a fraction of what they would have had inequality held constant. For example, at the median individual income of $36,000, workers are being shortchanged by $21,000 a year—$28,000 when using the CPI—an amount equivalent to an additional $10.10 to $13.50 an hour. But according to Price and Edwards, this actually understates the impact of rising inequality on low- and middle-income workers, because much of the gains at the bottom of the distribution were largely “driven by an increase in hours not an increase in wages.”

It is only at the 99th percentile that we see incomes growing faster than economic growth: at 171 percent of the rate of per capita GDP. But even this understates the disparity. “The average income growth for the top one percent was substantially higher,” write Price and Edwards, “at more than 300 percent of the real per capita GDP rate.” The higher your income, the larger your percentage gains. As a result, the top 1 percent’s share of total taxable income has more than doubled, from 9 percent in 1975, to 22 percent in 2018, while the bottom 90 percent have seen their income share fall, from 67 percent to 50 percent. This represents a direct transfer of income—and over time, wealth—from the vast majority of working Americans to a handful at the very top.
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