How Clearly Do We See the Rising Inequality in America? How Do We Feel About It?

Summary:  Among the serious problems eroding the Republic’s foundations, rising inequality of wealth & income must rank high. It’s the worst kind of problem, generating its own positive feedback (like a pebble thrown down a rocky hillside). Today we have the crack analysts of the Liscio Report look a seldom-discussed aspects of this national illness: how we see it, how we feel about it.


  1. Today’s reading: “Recent work on income disparity”
  2. About the Liscio Report
  3. About the rugged individualists who built America
  4. For more information about inequality

(1)  “Recent work on income disparity”

From The Liscio Report, 28 March 2012. Reposted here with their generous permission.

Setting the stage

UC Berkeley Economics Professor Emmanuel Saez recently updated his income-share spreadsheets through 2010, using data from the IRS’s Statistics of Income Division. This series includes capital gains, which results in more dramatic swings than one sees in series that exclude them.

Including capital gains real incomes fell 17% between 2007 and 2009, the largest decline since the Great Depression. Within that the incomes of the top 1% were down 36%, largely the result of the 74% decline in realized capital gains between 2007 and 2009, while those of the lower 99% were down 12%.

Painful for all, indeed, but skewed to the upper income groups, a trend that had more than retraced itself by the end of 2010, the most recent year of IRS data. Between 2009 and 2010 the incomes of the lower 99% rose only 0.2% while the incomes of the top percentile rose 12%, meaning that close to all the over-the-year improvement in income, when adjusted for population, was captured by that top percentile, 93% of it to be exact. (See links below for more data.)

That puts some numbers on why the recovery is experienced so differently by ordinary wage earners and by elite income groups, which in turn has surely heightened public awareness of our growing income disparity.

But there’s another big question out there. Whether you’re rooting for the upper or lower percentiles, if you spend a lot of time looking at income distribution tables, you can’t help but wonder why there is so little popular support for redistribution toward the middle classes, especially as the share of income going to the wealthiest citizens has risen toward levels last seen in the Roaring Twenties:

Piecing together what people think

In “The American Public Looks at the Rich,” sociologists David Weakliem (Prof Sociology, U CT) and Robert Biggert (Asst Prof Sociology, Assumption College) round up a number of opinion polls on the subject taken over the last five decades and suggest some answers (unpublished draft).

We’re re-quoting their opening quote because it’s a bit hard to remember that concerns about “tyranny of the majority” related to taxation have a long history. Back in late 19th Century England, as property restrictions on voting weakened, John Stuart Mill fretted:

“… is it not a considerable danger lest [the majority] should throw…upon the larger incomes, an unfair share, or even the whole, of the burden of taxation; and having done so, add to the amount without scruple, expending the proceeds of modes supposed to conduce to the profit and advantage of the labouring class?”
— Considerations on Representative Government (1861), p. 79.

Although American workers have fought for wages, unions, and benefits, why a push for inequitable tax burdens (some would say even equitable tax burdens) on the rich feared by Mill and his colleagues has never gained traction remains an open question. After reviewing polling evidence, Weakliem and Biggert note, “There is little support for direct redirection from the rich,” and, “Even the general principle of progressive taxation does not draw clear majority support.”

The paper is thoughtful, even-handed, and a refreshing break from dreary speculation that the lower-income groups are dominated by a disproportionate share of misguided lottery enthusiasts. The comments of the authors suggest a far more complex picture.

For one thing, the authors note that Americans are not opposed to higher taxes on the rich — 59% of respondents to a 2011 poll favored higher rates for families making at least $250K — but they don’t have much faith in the government’s ability to accomplish this. In one poll that inquired about the government’s ability to provide health care, college education, day care, and a few other services, “reducing the difference between the rich and poor” was the only item for which a larger percentage had had “no confidence at all,” rather than “a great deal of confidence.”

Some are more equal than others

One pollster notes that since the 1980s “people have told pollsters that the rich, not themselves, will benefit from budget agreements. It does not seem to matter what the contents of the agreement are or whether they are negotiated by Republicans or Democrats.” Widespread belief that the rich get out of paying taxes leads respondents to believe that additional revenues intended to come from the wealthy would fall instead on the middle and lower incomes.

For another, poll respondents did not have an accurate idea of how big the current income gap is, and were in the dark concerning America’s international ranking in terms of economic equality. The authors found that although respondents were quite accurate in estimating compensation in a number of professions, they “dramatically underestimated” top executive incomes. For example, estimates of what CEOs and owners of large factories make were less than half the official estimates of actual salaries, as pieced together from a number of sources.

Additionally, the margin between what respondents think executives make and what seems fair to them is considerably smaller than the margin between what respondents think executives make and what they actually make. (The authors note that respondents might have made more accurate estimates had they been asked about entertainers and athletes, rather than business-people, and that doctors’ and lawyers’ salaries are often over-estimated.)

In a 2006 poll, the respondents optimistically gave the US a mean ranking of 15th out of 32 industrialized nations in terms of economic equality as measured by income ratios. Our actual ranking was 28th, with only Mexico, Turkey, Hong Kong and Singapore more unequal.

And for yet another, across a number of polls, respondents showed strong agreement that the possibility of earning high salaries was important to the economy as a whole, and to bringing people into professions demanding a lot of preparation. One poll found 63% agreeing that the spending of millionaires gives “employment to a lot of people,” with 23% not agreeing, and 68% agreeing that investments help “create jobs and provide prosperity,” with 19% disagreeing. A majority agree that no one would go through law or medical school unless they could earn substantially higher incomes than ordinary workers. So concerns about the negative economic effects of curtailing income inequality look to be part of the explanation for the lack of support for redistribution.

On the other hand, the authors found little support for the idea that Americans over-estimate their own standing on the income ladder, and none at all for David Brooks’s claims that 19% of Americans believe they are in the top percentile. In one older poll, 20% ranked their families as above or far above average, and 29% as below or far below average; in a newer poll 8% ranked themselves as poor, 19% as lower income, 11% as upper income, and 2% as rich. The halves don’t add up, and are skewed to the lower side. The authors note the people tend to be generous in evaluating their abilities, so perhaps there is some over-estimation, but polling evidence suggests otherwise.

The common assumption that people over-estimate upward mobility is complicated by disparate estimations of what it means to be wealthy. One study found that those making $10K a year would require only $50K, while it would take $250K for those making around $75K, so definitions of “rich” probably include moving beyond a hand-to-mouth existence. But the authors suggest that respondents are generally quite reasonable in their expectations about becoming wealthy.

Noting that 8% of households make more than $150K a year, and that one analysis of tax returns found a 50% turnover within the top 5% over ten years, the number of people who will be rich at some point is several times larger than the number who are rich at any given time. According to various polls, about 10% of respondents think it is very likely they will be rich, and about 24% that it’s somewhat likely, so they aren’t so far off.

In 2009, one set of pollsters concluded that, “Americans doggedly believe in the rags-to-riches story,” but there’s a problem with the question on which this conclusion is based: “Do you believe it is still possible to start out poor in this country, work hard, and become rich?” The authors point out that it’s certainly possible, so the correct answer in fact is yes; people answering yes may well be acknowledging that possibility, not saying it’s highly likely, just as the up to 40% who responded no were more likely commenting on the rareness of the event than the literal impossibility.

Do Americans idolize the rich?

Some have suggested that the American public tends to idolize the rich, but this was not supported in polls. First, the majority of respondents indicated they don’t find the rich that interesting, although they like to read about celebrities. A majority of respondents to an AARP poll thought being wealthy was the result of hard work rather than luck, but other polls found that percentages of people who agreed and disagreed that people worked hard for their wealth, and agreed and disagreed that the wealthy had exploited people to get where they were, were about even.

Weakleim and Biggert suggest that the number of people who dismiss luck’s importance in becoming wealthy might be unrealistically high because some people may understand “luck” to “mean completely haphazard events, rather than systematic factors such as being born in a wealthy family.”

Although a majority of respondents in one poll believe millionaires give generously to charities, 49% do not believe they feel a responsibility to society because of their wealth, 78% believe them more likely to be snobs, 66% less likely to be honest, and 54% think them more likely to be racists. So, although 61% think the very rich are more likely to be physically attractive, that hasn’t translated to general merit, so admiration for the rich does not rank high as a reason that Mill’s prediction has not come to pass.

Happy inequality

And finally the authors take on happiness. Although polls have found that large majorities believe they would be happier if they made more money, and 60% would like to be rich, only about 40% believe they would be happier if they were rich. Fifty-two percent believe the rich are no happier than they are, with only 11% thinking the rich are happier, and 35%, less happy. The authors don’t really see a contradiction here. They note that people might prefer to be rich because it would provide better benefits for their children, or that they would like to be relatively better off than they are, but not necessarily rich. In any case, the authors suggest that people are “resisting the logical consequence of the principle that money makes life better.”

Who knew?

(2)  About the Liscio Report

— From their About page:

Here at The Liscio Report we do all our own research and writing, do not manage other people’s money or receive any form of commission, and are beholden to no one but our subscribers and ourselves. We bring fresh perspectives to the data we analyze and are confident taking positions contrary to consensus when our proprietary data tells us to do so.


Our insights are regularly picked up in Barron’s, CNBC, and other publications. Additionally, we make occasional television appearances (most recently on CNBC and Bill Moyers), and were ranked by MSN Money in the top five of their annual “Best of the Best” Awards.

John Liscio founded the Report in 1992.  Philippa Dunne and Douglas Henwood were John Liscio’s closest associates and, since John’s untimely death in 2000, are honored to be carrying on the research techniques he pioneered.

Other notes at Liscio Report’s blog:

(3)  About the rugged individualists who built America

America was built to a large extent by collective action, using government-built infrastructure.  The classic explanation is “The Myth of Rugged American Individualism“, Charles A. Beard, Harper’s, December 1931.  It’s as appropriate today as when written during the Depression.  Excerpt:

This is only one of the many straws in the wind indicating a movement to exult rugged individualism into a national taboo beyond the reach of inquiring minds.  From day to day it becomes increasingly evident that some of our economic leaders are using the phase as an excuse for avoiding responsibility, for laying the present depression on “government interference,” and seeking to avoid certain forms of taxation and regulation that they do not find to their interest.

For a more recent look at this myth see: “Mitt Romney and the myth of self-created millionaires“, George Monbiot, op-ed in The Guardian, 24 September 2012 — “The parasitical ultra-rich often deny the role of others in the acquisition of their wealth – and even seek to punish them for it”

(4)  For more information

(a)  For more information about inequality of wealth and income in America:

The long decline of labor“, Felix Salmon, Reuters, 26 September 2012 — A summary of the following report.

Labor’s Declining Share of Income and Rising Inequality“, Margaret Jacobson and Filippo Occhino, Cleveland Federal Reserve, 25 February 2012 — The rising concentration of wealth quickly becomes self-perpetuating.  Excerpt:

Such a decline had implications for the distribution of incomes. Labor income is more evenly distributed across U.S. households than capital income, while a disproportionately large share of capital income accrues to the top income households. As the share that is more evenly distributed declined and the share that is more concentrated at the top rose, total income became less evenly distributed and more concentrated at the top. As a result, total income inequality rose.

(b)  Posts about inequality and social mobility: once strengths, now weaknesses:

  1. A sad picture of America, but important for us to understand, 3 November 2008 — Our low social mobility.
  2. America’s elites reluctantly impose a client-patron system, 5 November 2008
  3. Inequality in the USA, 7 January 2009
  4. A great, brief analysis of problem with America’s society – a model to follow when looking at other problems, 4 June 2009
  5. The latest figures on income inequality in the USA, 9 October 2009
  6. Graph of the decade, a hidden fracture in the American political regime, 7 March 2010
  7. America, the land of limited opportunity. We must open our eyes to the truth., 31 March 2010
  8. Modern America seen in pictures. Graphs, not photos. Facts, not impressions., 13 June 2010
  9. A pity party for America’s rich and powerful, 8 September 2010
  10. Why Americans should love Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – we live there, 13 December 2011
  11. News You Can Use to understand the New America, 14 March 2012 — Articles about rising inequality
  12. The new American economy: concentrating business power to suit an unequal society, 27 April 2012
  13. Jared Bernstein examines the economic impact of raising taxes on high-income households, 30 April 2012
  14. Should we despair, giving up on America?, 5 May 2012

This post was originally published at Fabius Maximus and is reproduced here with permission.

4 Responses to "How Clearly Do We See the Rising Inequality in America? How Do We Feel About It?"

  1. vasile   September 27, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    Yes, inequality is bad, but equality is worse if we are both poor.
    The question is: does your wealth oppress me? If not, what is the problem?
    Sure the government can come and redistribute the wealth, but it is almost certain that in the process, worthless bureaucrats will make themselves rich while, the total wealth of the society is reduced. Have we not learned anything from the communist experience? And let's not compare the U.S. as a whole with carefully selected small or homogenous or very educated societies.

    • jaykimball   October 2, 2012 at 1:41 am

      Vasile: It's a false choice you offer. Post WWII, up through the 70s, the middle class was growing strong, and the rich were well off.

      Veteran investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith, speaking on “Who Stole the American Dream?”, recently gave a talk on the the destruction of the middle-class – how it happened, and what to do about it. It explores the rise of corporate lobbying, and social engineering that moved wealth from the middle-class to the corporate elite. I posted a video of that talk, here:

    • jaykimball   October 2, 2012 at 1:52 am

      Vasile: Our US government has been redistributing the wealth for decades. From the middle class to the wealthy and corporate elite. The worker has increased productivity, but wages are flat.

      The US Gini Index – a measure of inequality – is at an all time high, in the ranks of Rwanda and Uganda.

      This is not about Capitalism versus Communism. It is about Plutocracy, cronyism, and the superPACed, lobbyist fueled, special interest driven, well oiled, corporate powered, political machine.

      In 2011 private companies and special interest groups spent $3.32 billion lobbying their agendas. From 2008 to 2010, 30 Fortune 500 companies spent more money on lobbying than they did on taxes. Recent studies show that for every dollar spent lobbying, business receives over $220 back in legislation that favors the business. Congress spends about 3 to 5 hours every day dialing for dollars and begging for bucks.

      Balance needs to be restored.

  2. Valli Genevieve   September 29, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Yes Vasile, I am worse off. As CEO's have come to focus on short term profits, take exorbitant salaries and seek to avoid taxes, my country has less to spend on infrastructure and social safety nets and education. I receive a lower salary and fewer raises and my job insecurity has increased dramatically. They are stealing and cheating their way to the top and they are using our money to do it.