Representing inequality

Posted: 4 December 2015 in Uncategorized
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Inequalities in the United States are now so obscene we’re running out of appropriate ways of illustrating them.

But that doesn’t stop the Institute for Policy Studies from trying.

The median American family has a net worth of $81,000. The Forbes 400 own more wealth than 36 million of these typical American families. That’s as many households in the United States that own cats.

Here a few others:

The level of U.S. wealth inequality has grown so lopsided that our classic wealth distributional pyramid now more resembles the shape of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle.

The bulge at the top of our wealth “space needle” reflects America’s wealthiest 0.1 percent, the top one-thousandth of our population, an estimated 115,000 households with a net worth starting at $20 million. This group owns more than 20 percent of U.S. household wealth, up from 7 percent in the 1970s. This elite subgroup, University of California-Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez points out, now owns about as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of America combined.

But these numbers don’t tell the full wealth concentration story. For that story we need to examine our wealthiest 400, a cohort small enough to dine in the rotating luxury restaurant atop the Space Needle in Seattle. These 400 all possess fortunes worth at least $1.7 billion.

Our wealthiest 400 now have more wealth combined than the bottom 61 percent of the U.S. population, an estimated 70 million households, or 194 million people. That’s more people than the population of Canada and Mexico combined.

The higher up you go up our contemporary wealth ladder, the greater the imbalance. Perched atop our distributional space needle rests a Gulfstream G650 luxury private jet. Sitting in its 20 seats: America’s 20 wealthiest individuals.

Cats, space needles, and private jets—however hard we try to come up with new ways of representing the growing inequalities in the United States, they still seem to fail to adequately capture the enormous share of the nation’s income and wealth that is being captured by a tiny group at the top.

  1. mjlovas says:

    Recently the Ambassador of the United States in the Czech Republic gave a public talk at the university which employees me. Remarking about the popularity of Donald Trump, he said something like the following: A lot of voters are angry. They don’t even know why.

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