The top 10% of Americans now make about as much as the bottom 90%. But within that group, an even smaller fraction dominates. Nobel Prize winning economist Joe Stiglitz has observed that the US is ruled by the top 1%, for the top 1%. And within that top 1%, the top tenth has been triumphant. Earning on average $5.6 million in 2008 (and at least $1.7 million), the group has seen its income rise 385% from 1970 to 2008, while earnings of the bottom 90% declined.
Worldwide, the rich are pulling away from the rest as well. Given this political reality, what kind of future is likely for the bottom 99%? Will the sort of precarious existence now common for the poor and lower-middle classes climb higher up the income ladder?
Michael Lind suggests this is likely, because so many jobs can be done by “less expensive and more deferential foreign nationals,” or prisoners. WSJ reporter Robert Frank has also observed a decoupling of destinies: “the economic fate of Richistan seems increasingly separate from the fate of the U.S.” (or any particular country).
Meanwhile, progressive thinkers like Bruce Judson, Robert Reich, and David Callahan have hoped for the rise of a conscientious superclass. In their view, any nation’s wealthy should see middle class prosperity as part of its own self-interest properly understood. Most of these thinkers hold up Germany or Sweden as models of egalitarianism that helps even those at the top. A book called “The Spirit Level” has made a complementary case, arguing that, as a statistical matter, even the richest in an unequal society tend to be less healthy and secure than those at the top of a more equal social order. (Consider, for instance, that even if you were in the oil-drilling elite of Equatorial Guinea, making $250,000 per year, you might well want to move to Sweden for a similar position paying $100,000 a year.)