In their proper place, the depths
April 10, 2004 7:33 AM   Subscribe

Where Wealth Lives
"The top 1% of families, as measured by net worth, receive about 15% of income but own 30% of the nation's assets -- including stocks and bonds, homes, and closely held businesses. That's according to the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances. The top 10% of families, as measured by net wealth, own 65% of assets, and the top 50% own a stunning 95% of assets..."
posted by kliuless (23 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
also, according to a recent study from Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies:
"This is the first time we've ever had a case where two years into a recovery, corporate profits got a larger share of the growth of national income than labor did. Normally labor gets about 65 percent and corporate profits about 15 to 18 percent. This time profits got 41 percent and labor [meaning all forms of employee compensation, including wages, benefits, salaries and the percentage of payroll taxes paid by employers] got 38 percent."
why is this occurring?
a) productivity
b) offshoring
c) globalization
d) all of the above

what's interesting i think as a result is that greenspan -- as the world's de facto central banker -- may be "forced to fuel a global boom..." and greenspan is supposed to retire in 2006! (which i don't think would be so bad if they hired ferguson, 'famous' for this :)
posted by kliuless at 7:35 AM on April 10, 2004

And this is news because...? Even this article is forced to admit (in a throwaway line near the end) that the old "top 50% owns 95%" trope is at least ten years old; I memorized that same set of statistics as an undergraduate in the late 1970s, and even then it was conventional wisdom, decades old, wasn't it?

What's this you say? Productivity appears to be up, so everybody should be making more? OK, so productivity is up, but only the painfully naive would have thought the dollar benefit of that increase was going to go to anyone other than the "owners"... Nothing about how business is structured has changed, why should profit distribution change?
posted by JollyWanker at 7:45 AM on April 10, 2004

Business is also structured in other countries but the results often differ. Try this: The New Yorker: THE HEIGHT GAP an fascinating article that indicates that even biological change is subject to how the economics of a nation are arranged.
posted by Postroad at 7:56 AM on April 10, 2004

There are so terribly many skewed and perverse generalizations here, it's right up there with trying to fear monger people by declaring that "everyone will die!!! (eventually)."

Seriously, for example, just try to calculate Bill Gates assets. Say, $50B, $49B of which is in Microsoft stock, which only has value if he doesn't sell it. If he does try to sell it, billions of dollars of "assets" evaporate like water.

What the biggest objection is, once you boil it down, is not that wealth is centralized in capitalists who know how to use it; but that wealth is *not* centralized among the self-appointed elites who not only think that *they* should use it, but they would be *better* at using it than those who currently have it.

In other words, you have a thousand dollars that you wastefully would use for rent and food. If I, on the other hand, had your money, I would use it for *important* stuff--basically whatever *I* felt like. Which would be better. And damn you for so greedily holding on to that thousand dollars when I could be using it.
posted by kablam at 8:18 AM on April 10, 2004

kliuless - Here's one more factor. Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich - and Cheat Everybody Else" by David Cay Johnston

"What "Perfectly Legal" does is show how our national myth that the rich are heavily taxed to benefit everyone else is untrue and that the middle class and the upper middle class, those making $30,000 to $500,000, are heavily taxed to subsidize the super rich.

"Perfectly Legal" is based on nine years of reporting by David Cay Johnston, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 and was a finalist for that award three other times.

And the story is told not in dry text, but through the lives of individual Americans from all walks of life who were rewarded, or punished or cheated and got away with it. The book even names two billionaires who did not file tax returns for 30 years and were never prosecuted.

You will learn that the income gap is vastly greater than you ever imagined -- the top 29,000 Americans have as much income as the bottom 96 million. And tax burden for the richest Americans has been falling sharply while everyone else's has risen. Most people making $60,000 pay a larger share of their income in federal taxes than the top 400 Americans, whose average income in 2000 was $174 million each. They paid just 22-cents on the dollar in federal taxes and under the Bush tax cuts would pay just 17.5 cents on the dollar.

Indeed, in 1970, the bottom group, a third of all Americans, had more than ten times the income of that very top group, the top 1/100th of 1 percent or top 29,000. By 2000 they were equal because the bottom third's income fell while the top group's income went through the roof."
posted by troutfishing at 8:20 AM on April 10, 2004

Oh - and the inimitable "L Curve" deserves a mention here as well. Click on the image to go to the "L Curve" website, by David Chandler, which has a zoomable version of this image -

"The red line represents a graph of family income across the population. The height of the curve at any point is the height of a stack of $100 bills equalling that income."

posted by troutfishing at 8:26 AM on April 10, 2004

Now - this graph only depicts, as does the GINI index, relative inequality. Haiti has an extremely unequal wealth distribution too, but average Americans are vastly wealthier than average Haitians.

But it's important to note that there is a known correlation between national inequalities in wealth distribution and political instability.

I would argue that the "irregularities" and outright vote fraud (especially in Florida) which marred the US 2000 election that brought George Bush to power may have been - at least in part - a result of the growing wealth inequalities in the US.

The hyper-rich, in the US and elsewhere, are growing ever bolder - or so it seems to me.
posted by troutfishing at 8:39 AM on April 10, 2004

People who complain about the distribution of wealth always seem to oppose the very things which would enable the talented to break out and support those policies whihc force them to fester along with the rest.

I'll start to listening to the redistributionist whiners when there tribunes make sure that it's as easy for a responsible high school graduate to start a business in the inner city as it is for an irresponsible dropout to get on welfare.
posted by MattD at 11:16 AM on April 10, 2004

The death tax is supposed to address all this. It re-distributes the wealth over the course of a few generations. It may take 100 or 200 years but eventually they money flows back out. Keeping money is harder than making it.
posted by stbalbach at 11:17 AM on April 10, 2004

I had always found the Lorenz Curve to be a more intuitive expression of inquality than L-curves, particularly for non-specialists -the Gini Coefficient is based on the Lorenz Curve.

Here are the GINI coefficients and Lorenz curves for the US - 1970, 1980, 1990 and 1994 - [PDF] and comparison of GINI indices around the world.

The basis of the concern over growing income inequality is that it is that inequality restricts opportunity, and a system without opportunity is a system that does not support true meritocracy.

Finishing high school, or going on in education, as a high school diploma is less and less recognised as a credential, requires a stable home and someone with enough additional income to be willing to at least partially support you through these years. For some, it is not even a question of someone else supporting them - they are actually responsible for supporting others and cannot go to school because it would mean the loss of their income to support someone else, such as a child or an older parent. When even skilled incomes, such as that of a bookkeeper, are so low that two incomes are needed to support two adults and one child, this is a serious situation.

But that said, anyone who has read Michael Young's The Rise of the Meritocracy might begin to think that even meritocracy is not truely desirable, and that it is reduction of inquality that is the the goal in and of itself, for purely moral reasons.
posted by jb at 11:39 AM on April 10, 2004

Keeping money is harder than making it.

Uh, I have to call bullshit on this one.
posted by beth at 11:42 AM on April 10, 2004

What you might not realize is that it's always been this way!
posted by blasdelf at 12:33 PM on April 10, 2004

What the biggest objection is, once you boil it down, is not that wealth is centralized in capitalists who know how to use it; but that wealth is *not* centralized among the self-appointed elites who not only think that *they* should use it, but they would be *better* at using it than those who currently have it.

Yes ... arguments that we should "re-distribute wealth" are always fun to read - they generally boil down to elites without money wanting to become the eilties with the money. And almost every actual "revolution" against elites with money has ultimately done just that - replaced them with another elite that controlled most of the money.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

But it's important to note that there is a known correlation between national inequalities in wealth distribution and political instability.

Possibly even more important to note that probably the most unstable political systems in the world are those that attempt to enforce some sort of "economic equality". It is a utopian dream that every generation persists in dreaming about, and that periodically a nation will try - but it almost inevitably leads to brutality. "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" sounds positively lovely in theory. We all saw how it turned out in practice.
posted by MidasMulligan at 3:05 PM on April 10, 2004

*introduces MidasMulligan to this wide gap that exists between his capitalist ayn rand jerk-off fantasy and his communist nightmares that most people call 'sensible common ground'.*

I'll leave you two to get acquainted.
posted by Space Coyote at 3:31 PM on April 10, 2004

MidasM -- how do you think taxes should work?

(no snark, honest question)
posted by namespan at 4:19 PM on April 10, 2004

Many Companies Avoided Taxes
Even as Profits Soared in Boom

More than 60% of U.S. corporations didn't pay any federal taxes for 1996 through 2000, years when the economy boomed and corporate profits soared, the investigative arm of Congress reported.

The disclosures from the General Accounting Office are certain to fuel the debate over corporate tax payments in the presidential campaign. Corporate tax receipts have shrunk markedly as a share of overall federal revenue in recent years, and were particularly depressed when the economy soured. By 2003, they had fallen to just 7.4% of overall federal receipts, the lowest rate since 1983, and the second-lowest rate since 1934, federal budget officials say...

The GAO report also may further fuel a drive in Congress to crack down on a variety of corporate tax-dodging strategies, such as a recently discovered leasing maneuver that allows companies to buy up depreciation rights to public transit lines, highways and water systems. Senate tax-committee leaders have released a list of companies involved that includes a number of well-known financial firms, such as First Union Commercial Corp., a unit of Wachovia Corp. Wachovia has defended its involvement, saying the transactions are legal.

The new report also could spur further IRS action against tax-shelter peddlers and their customers. The IRS is closely examining tax-shelter deals sold by accounting firms such as KPMG LLP, for example. That firm recently experienced a management shake-up in response to the inquiry.

Conservatives depicted the GAO report as an argument for tax-code overhaul for both corporations and individuals. Dan Mitchell, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, also noted in corporations' defense that they have an obligation to shareholders to pay as little tax as they legally can.

The report examined a sample of tax information for the years 1996 through 2000; for 2000, it covered about 2.1 million returns filed by U.S.-controlled corporations and 69,000 filed by foreign-controlled corporations. It showed that big companies -- defined as those with at least $250 million in assets or $50 million in gross receipts -- were more likely to pay taxes than smaller ones. Still, the GAO said 45.3% of large U.S.-controlled companies and 37.5% of large foreign-controlled companies had no tax liability in 2000. More than 35% paid less than 5% of their income.

The basic federal corporate-tax rate for big corporations is 35%. But the federal tax code also offers many credits and loopholes that allow many companies to pay far less than that.

Despite the rising rate of tax avoidance among corporations, collections from the federal corporate income tax rose to more than $200 billion in 2000, from $171 billion in 1996. But over the next three years they fell each year, reaching $131.8 billion in 2003 -- the lowest annual total since 1993. They are projected to reach $168.7 billion this year.

posted by kliuless at 8:01 PM on April 10, 2004

Keeping money is harder than making it.
..Uh, I have to call bullshit on this one.

The royal family in the UK has kept its money. They have done so by not paying income tax, not having an inheritance death tax. Both of these things are illegal in the USA. Which is why there are no long lasting financial powerhouses in the USA that compare to anything like the royal family and other similar families around Europe and the world. The robber barons of the 19th are mere shadows of what they once were, they used to be richer than Bill Gates (adjusted for inflation), that money has for a lot of reasons been redistributed out to a lot of different people. I am sure JP Morgan would have liked to remain the most powerful family name for 100s of years like the Windsors but the American tax code does not allow for it. Once you have money it is almost impossible to keep it at the same level over time, in fact it is illegal. That is why I say making money is easier, at least it is legal.
posted by stbalbach at 9:30 PM on April 10, 2004

probably the most unstable political systems in the world are those that attempt to enforce some sort of "economic equality"

Yeah, I'm expecting Norway and Sweden to dissolve into chaos any moment now.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 7:31 AM on April 11, 2004

Yes ... arguments that we should "re-distribute wealth" are always fun to read - they generally boil down to elites without money wanting to become the elites with the money.

And some times they boil down to a humanitarian concern for 49 million of your countrymen who cannot afford basic medical insurance, for the people who will die on average 2 years earlier than the average European because of the lower life expectancy, the infants that die because of your higher infant mortality rate, the 12th graders that underperform the international average in mathematics, etc., etc.

Income inequality in the US is remarkable. It is so wide that, although the US has the highest average per capita income, its poorest 10% are considerably poorer than the bottom 10% in almost any other industrialised country.

The conservative elite would have you believe this is a tolerable position because of the US's much boasted of social and economic mobility. And yet independent analyses of the American labour market show that the poor are less likely to exit poverty in any one year than the poor in Canada, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and the UK - and if they do they are more likely to re-enter poverty in 5 years.

The idea of social mobility is an illusion maintained by the conservatives to allow them to peddle their nostrums regarding the efficiency of the flexible market and the imperative of minimal government.
The reality of extraordinary inequality is a standing offence to the American expectation that everyone shall have the opportunity to have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

What America does to its own citizens is America's business, and up to each American (as far as the privatised information systems allow) to gather his own facts and make up his own mind. The difficulty is, it is becoming more and more brutish in foisting this offensive social construct on the rest of us.
posted by RichLyon at 8:52 AM on April 11, 2004 [1 favorite]

I don't think the disappearance of wealth in American families is so surprising, because in general one or at most two people make all the money and then over the generations it gets dispersed to a wider and wider number of inheritors. Windsor wealth does not get split into so many shares, how do you divide up by pieces of real estate or jewelry, and seems to me that it also continues to get added to (although this may be an incorrect across the pond perception).
posted by billsaysthis at 10:59 AM on April 11, 2004

Thank you, Rich Lyon - that was an excellent comment.

I was wondering if you might have some references, only because I am interested in keeping up on research on income inequality.
posted by jb at 12:12 PM on April 11, 2004


The State of Working America (Mishel et al) table 7.16 p. 395 provides the statistics illustrating the immobility of American poor.

The US Economic Model (Freeman) provides comparative data on relative poverty in different countries.

For a truly outstanding set of references and detailed notes (and an accurate sense of the horror with which the thinking European witnesses the lurch to the right your country has made), grab a copy of Will Hutton's A Declaration of Interdependence: Why America Should Join the World. The Emperor of American conservatism is left well and truly without clothes ...
posted by RichLyon at 12:07 PM on April 12, 2004 [2 favorites]

I don't have time to dig it up right now, but a recent study has determined that social mobility in the US is now less than in the UK.

The "L Curve" website has an awful lot of material on inequality, and I've done several posts on the subject which have lots of good links.
posted by troutfishing at 6:41 AM on April 13, 2004

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