The 100 Year Bloom?: Wealth Inequality in the U.S.

The debates around Piketty’s analysis of wealth gaps will persist, but a recent paper by Emmanuel Saez (U.C. Berkeley) and Gabriel Zucman (London School of Economics) indicates that wealth disparity in the U.S. has hit the levels of about 100 years ago. As the Economist Espresso edition reports, the study finds that “In the late 1920s the bottom 90% held just 16% of America’s wealth; the top 0.1% had a quarter.” From the Depression until “well after” World War II, the middle class share went up. Since the go-go 1980s that tide reversed and now “The top 0.1% (160,000 families worth $73m on average) hold 22% of America’s wealth, just shy of the 1929 peak—and almost the same share as the bottom 90% of the population.” (The Economist link has a nice chart from the paper. The chart captures the trend well. I was unable to get the image from the paper, however.).

I have to wonder whether the intersection of wealth disparity, race and police tensions, health security, job prospects, lack of food, and perhaps other factors explain what seem to be larger examples of unrest and revolutionary impulses from all ranges of political interests all around the world. And, the general sense of rejecting all institutions (a millennial impulse if lack of joining a party is a signal) can still lead to the short term alliance of enough people to cause revolution (their cause is change and rage and unleashed energy against the unjust), the aftermath of which is rarely bloodless. Once the common enemy goes, the energies of the one truth turn on each other. The show Survivor is much more real: eliminate those who are strong and helped you win, for they may threaten your vision. In other words, I sense much anger out there (and it may be founded) on many fronts. I see lex talionis (eye for an eye), but that is not justice. The law is supposed to mediate our impulse to revenge, and yet the law lies behind the changing tides of wealth. The unarticulated sense of injustice and disenfranchisement can eat the system from the inside. And even those gaining the biggest benefit right now will not see that the bottom is falling out from under them.

Not all 100 year blooms are pretty or benign. Reorganizing a country or the world so that baseline well-being goes up and is shared by most, if not all, seems like a blip in historical terms (I am trying to think of an extended era, more than 100 years, when wealth disparity was not high). But it may be that if we don’t start to fix these problems, the desire for those blips will become real and travel with high costs: depressions, starvations, revolutions, and wars.

It may not take much to prevent the fall. Who knows? Maybe the Jam’s That’s Entertainment captures an odd, sad, equilibrium that barely satisfies.

Waking up at 6 A.M. on a cool warm morning
Opening the windows and breathing in petrol
An amateur band rehearsing in a nearby yard
Watching the telly and thinking ’bout your holidays

If that is gone, well…

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1 Response

  1. David Bernstein says:

    Growth in wealth inequality is primarily a product of the stock market boom that started in 1982. People who had money to invest and invested it in the stock market made out very well. It’s hard to see how the world would be a better place without that boom, and the growth of companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc. Why have a revolution when you can listen to almost any song any time you want, video chat with a friend in China for free, look for a date without leaving your catch, and so forth and so on?