As the United States slips from its status as the globe’s number one economic power, small numbers of Americans continue to amass staggering amounts of wealth, while simultaneously inequality trends toward historic levels. At what appears to be a critical juncture in our history and the history of inequality in this country, here are nine questions we need to ask about who we are and what will become of us. Let’s start with a French economist who has emerged as an important voice on what’s happening in America today.
1) What does Thomas Piketty have to do with the 99%?French economist Thomas Piketty’s surprise bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is an unlikely beach read, though it’s selling like one. A careful parsing of massive amounts of data distilled into “only” 700 pages, it outlines the economic basis for the 1%-99% divide in the United States. (Conservative critics, of course, disagree.)
Just in case you aren’t yet rock-bottom certain about the reality of that divide, here are some stats: the top 1% of Americans hold 35% of the nation’s net worth; the bottom 80%, only 11% percent. The United States has such an unequal distribution of wealth that, in global rankings, it falls among the planet’s kleptocracies, not the developed nations that were once its peers. The mathematical measure of wealth-inequality is called “Gini,” and the higher it is, the more extreme a nation’s wealth-inequality. The Gini for the U.S. is 85; for Germany, 77; Canada, 72; and Bangladesh, 64. Nations more unequal than the U.S. include Kazakhstan at 86 and the Ukraine at 90. The African continent tips in at just under 85. Odd company for the self-proclaimed “indispensable nation.”
Piketty shows that such inequality is driven by two complementary forces. By owning more of everything (capital), rich people have a mechanism for getting ever richer than the rest of us, because the rate of return on investment is higher than the rate of economic growth. In other words, money made from investments grows faster than money made from wages. Piketty claims the wealth of the wealthiest Americans is rising at 6%-7% a year, more than three times as fast as the economy the rest of us live in.
At the same time, wages for middle and lower income Americans are sinking, driven by factors also largely under the control of the wealthy.