The Ten Million Dollar-per-week Club

Many commentators on inequality have focused on bonus culture at financial firms. Finance professionals do represent about 18% of taxpayers in the top tenth of one percent, as Bakija & Heim have shown. (In 2005, the minimum income for joining the top 0.1% was $1,246,000.) But Bakija & Heim also found that “executives, managers, and supervisors” at nonfinancial firms made up about 41% of the top 0.1% earners. And when we look at recent payroll tax data, as David Cay Johnston has, the unequal share of income at the very top of this rarefied group is nothing less than spectacular:

The number of Americans making $50 million or more, the top income category in the data, fell from 131 in 2008 to 74 last year. But that’s only part of the story. The average wage in this top category increased from $91.2 million in 2008 to an astonishing $518.8 million in 2009. That’s nearly $10 million in weekly pay! . . . .

Since 1980, the bottom 90 percent of Americans have seen their incomes go nowhere, while on the highest steps of the income ladder, the further up you are, the greater your gains.

Johnston’s analysis is worth reading in full. We’re moving from a “winner take all society” to a “winner take all politics,” as Hacker and Pierson have shown. Many in the ostensibly populist “Tea Party” resist any taxes to address this inequality, while somehow the “left” position seems unable to distinguish between the taxation of a surgeon making $400,000 and a tycoon making $400,000,000. Indeed, the main goal of some key Clinton and Obama era advisors seems to be to join the club: Robert Rubin collected more than $115 million in compensation.

We often hear about “shared sacrifice” today. If we don’t see more graduated income tax rates at the very top, it will be difficult to resist the suspicion that “austerity” is a guise for, once again, increasing the share of national income at the very top.

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