For all the angst over inequality in society Americans sure are captivated by inequality at the high end.
Thoughtful people deplore the great gap in wealth and power between those at the top and those at the bottom — and not just those at the very bottom.
The truth is it’s the top 10 or 20 percent versus the bottom 80 or 90 percent. There are various ways of looking at this kind of demographic analysis.
Perhaps the most extreme is the ubiquitous comparison of the wealth of the top 1 percent to the bottom 50 percent of the population, over time.
For the top 1 percent, this trend line has been more or less up over the last 30 or so years (allowing for recessions). For the bottom 50 percent the trend line has been more or less flat during that time. In fact, the 2020 figure for half the population is actually below the 1989 figure after inflation is taken into account.
The numbers are shocking, and telling.
At the start of this year the richest 1 percent held 32 percent of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 50 percent held barely 2 percent, according to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, as reported in The New York Times.
In dollars, the numbers approach the unfathomable. Since 1989 the top 1 percent gained $10 trillion, while the bottom 50 percent gained a measly $700 billion.
In separate data, the Fed reported the top 1 percent of Americans controlled $41.5 trillion and the bottom 50 percent controlled $2.6 trillion, or 16 times less, at the start of this year. ($41 trillion is about double the nation’s one-year Gross Domestic Product.)
If you get the feeling you’ve been losing out it’s understandable. There are those who say everyday Americans have been taken advantage of by economic policies, basically forever.
And it’s not only progressives like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren who are pushing new policies such as breaking up conglomerates and taxing wealth, not just income.
Most mainstream economists say inequality is an unavoidable characteristic of a free, capitalist society, but there are some today who say that growing inequality will end up hurting the economy.
At the same time that the great majority of Americans are, in my opinion, being exploited they nevertheless relish the extremes of wealth, power and privilege that permeate society. Some examples that come to mind.
Glorification of billionaire businessmen who create company subsidiaries to fly them into space, namely Richard Branson (estimated net worth $5.4 billion) and Jeff Bezos (estimated net worth $212 billion).
Billionaires in general, such as Bob Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, ($6.9 billion).
Mere millionaires, such as Jeff Kinney of Plainville (somewhere around $100 million, figures vary) or Bill Belichick (around $60 million) or Tom Brady (around $200 million) to complete our Patriots headliners, present and past.
Or how about the pomp and pageantry, not to mention wealth, of British royalty ($88 billion). Would the British public want to give up the monarchy? Not a chance. The royals are hugely popular, in the United States as well as Great Britain. Not surprising “The Crown” Netflix series about the royal family tied for the most Emmy nominations.
For real comfort, there’s no one more pampered than the U.S. president. As with all presidents, Joe Biden needn’t lift a finger (although he does). The White House says it has 567 employees and a payroll of $50 million a year. As for presidential power, that is demonstrated daily on the world stage and in the news.
Yes, we all like to imagine what the lives of the rich and powerful are like even as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.