Saturday, August 22, 2009

Will we see more income equality?

Economic data should show, if it isn't already, that the ridiculously rich have gotten considerably poorer in the Great Recession. The super wealthy have not been immune to the collapse in asset prices.

Perhaps the broadest question is what a hit to the wealthy would mean for the middle class and the poor. The best-known data on the rich comes from an analysis of Internal Revenue Service returns by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, two economists. Their work shows that in the late 1970s, the cutoff to qualify for the highest-earning one ten-thousandth of households was roughly $2 million, in inflation-adjusted, pretax terms. By 2007, it had jumped to $11.5 million.

The gains for the merely affluent were also big, if not quite huge. The cutoff to be in the top 1 percent doubled since the late 1970s, to roughly $400,000.

By contrast, pay at the median — which was about $50,000 in 2007 — rose less than 20 percent, Census data shows. Near the bottom of the income distribution, the increase was about 12 percent.

Some economists say they believe that the contrasting trends are unrelated. If anything, these economists say, any problems the wealthy have will trickle down, in the form of less charitable giving and less consumer spending. Over the last century, the worst years for the rich were the early 1930s, the heart of the Great Depression.

Other economists say the recent explosion of incomes at the top did hurt everyone else, by concentrating economic and political power among a relatively small group.

The whole article is an interesting read. It brings forward (data) points such as:
  • The Mei-Moses index, which tracks art prices, has fallen 32% in the last 6 months
  • Income distribution was relatively flat in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s
  • For the super-rich to return to their old levels of wealth quickly would likely require another asset bubble
  • Incomes of the wealthiest Americans rose the most during the stock market bull markets
  • "Since 1980, tax rates on the affluent have fallen more than rates on any other group"
The article also weaves the tale of John McAffee, of McAffee anti-virus software fame, into the overall article. So if you're interested in what's happened to him, now you can find out.

What about the recession's effect on the mass affluent? Well, the original article authors did a follow-up blog post responding to a comment one of the orignla article's readers asked. Their argument is that the upper middle class will fare relatively better than other income groups, and bring up a better unemployment rate for the managerial and professional class and favorable tax policy as supporting points.