Posts Tagged ‘1 percent’


I have been arguing, since 2016 (e.g., here, here, and here), that one of the likely outcomes of the kind of corporate tax cuts Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans have supported—and, as we saw, eventually rammed through—would be an increase in inequality. That’s because corporations would likely use a portion of their higher profits to engage in stock buybacks, leading to an increase in stock prices. And stock ownership in the United States is already grotesquely unequal. Therefore, the rise in equity prices would disproportionately benefit the small group at the top of the wealth pyramid.

And that’s exactly what is happening. As CNN Money reports, U.S. corporations have showered Wall Street with $214 billion of stock buyback announcements so far this year.


According to a recent report by U.S. Senate Democrats (pdf), that total includes enormous repurchases from a diverse array of large corporations, including Wells Fargo, Oracle, Amgen, and Alphabet (Google).

Even those who, like Tyler Cowen, defend the use of the tax cuts for stock buybacks are forced to admit that

If a major corporation engages in buybacks, that simply transfers money from one set of hands to another — from the corporate entity to the shareholders.

That’s exactly right—except, of course, Cowen forgets about the initial transfer of value, the surplus, from workers to corporate boards of directors.

Now consider my estimate of the distribution of stock ownership in the United States, illustrated in the chart at the top of the post.

Again, as with the distribution of wealth in the United States, most experts get it wrong (as I showed recently, in a post that was picked up by Market Watch). As of 2014 (the last year for which data are available) the top 1 percent of American taxpayers (the green bar) owned not two or three but almost six times the corporate equities as the bottom 90 percent (the red bar)—62.19 percent compared to only 10.8 percent.

So, who are the real beneficiaries of the corporate tax cuts? Not workers (in terms of pay, benefits, or jobs) but the tiny group at the top who already own the bulk of stocks in the United States.* They’re getting wealthier and leaving everyone else further and further behind.

Let’s see what kind of economic voodoo the tiny group at the top of the wealth pyramid and their friends in politics and the media are going to use to attempt to buyback that obscene result.


*While some corporations have announced one-time bonuses, the money devoted to workers pales in comparison with the buyback bonanza. So far, just 6 percent of the corporate windfall from the tax cuts has gone to workers in the form of pay hikes, bonuses, and other benefits, according to an analysis by JUST Capital.


Special mention

206338  Wash, Rinse, Repeat


Ed Wolff is right:

For the vast majority of Americans, fluctuations in the stock market have relatively little effect on their wealth, or well-being, for that matter.

That’s because, as his research shows (and as I illustrate in the chart above), the bottom 90 percent of Americans own (either directly or indirectly) a tiny share—16 percent—of total stock value in the United States.* The rest is owned by the top 10 percent: 40.3 percent by just the top one percent (with a net worth in 2016 of $10,257,000 or more) and 43.6 percent by the next nine percent (who have a net worth between $1,143,200 and $10,257,000).

The fact is, the only real wealth owned by the vast majority of Americans is their principal residence. Otherwise, they’re forced to have the freedom to get by on their wages and salaries—not dividends or capital gains—and, when they retire, on their meager pensions and Social Security. Those at the top are the ones who are most involved in the stock-market casino.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t be worried, perhaps especially when the stock market is booming. That’s because stock prices are correlated with both corporate profits and income inequality. More surplus is being extracted and then distributed to be used—by corporations and wealthy individuals—to purchase corporate equities, thus driving up stock prices and making existing inequalities even more obscene. The rest of Americans are increasingly being left behind, subject to the dictates of their employers and the decisions made by those at the top.

And when that same group at the top decides to sell—because they’re worried about workers’ wages (which are still barely rising) or inflation (because interest rates may rise, thus making the money they borrow more expensive)—stock prices go through a “correction.”

No, the members of the bottom 90 percent are not much affected in terms of their wealth but they are buffeted by the resulting decisions taken by their employers and the small group of wealthy, stock-owning individuals—to accumulate capital or not in a particular line of business (which affects workers and their communities), to pursue changes in government policies in terms of both revenues (because they’d rather lend money to finance government deficits instead of being taxed) and expenditures (these days, to further weaken what remains of the social safety net), and so on. All of them decisions that are completely outside and beyond control of the members of the 90 percent.

So, while the stock market is a speculative casino that is driven by decisions and mostly affects the wealth of the top 10 percent, its fluctuations reverberate throughout the rest of the economy and society—both on the way up and on the way down.

That’s why everyone, especially the vast majority who don’t own much in the way of stocks, should be worried. Not of course in the same way as those who have a direct stake in the stock market, who make and lose fortunes on a daily basis. Just in the past two decades (in 2001 and then again in 2008), people have seen how there’s no clear separation or dividing line between Main Street and Wall Street. The decisions concerning the vast surplus those at the top appropriate and control are driving the current fluctuations on both streets.

What should most worry the members of the bottom 90 percent is the fact that, within capitalism, the individually rational decisions of those at the top—including the decisions or whether to buy or sell stocks—can and often do have social ramifications.

Our worries are different, which is precisely why it’s time for those at the bottom to imagine and enact a radically different set of economic and social institutions.


*Stock ownership includes direct ownership of stock shares and indirect ownership through mutual funds, trusts, and IRAs, Keogh plans, 401(k) plans, and other retirement accounts.


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PettJ20180207_low  206343


Special mention



Last week, Thomas Frank welcomed Paul Krugman to the ranks of those who believe that the American working-class in recent decades has often voted against its fundamental economic interests by supporting conservative Republicans.

Appropriately enough, Frank then chastises Krugman for having repeatedly used his New York Times column to argue exactly the opposite, denying the idea that working-class Americans had defected to the Republican Party.

Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? then draws the appropriate conclusion: that the tendency on the part of Krugman and other liberals to underestimate working-class conservatism, in both southern and northern states, prepared the way for Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election of November 2016.

To be clear, we’re not talking about the entire American working-class. Working-class whites have been more likely to vote against their economic interests and to be persuaded by the kinds of cultural, identity issues raised by Trump and other Republican politicians. Not so with Hispanics, latinos, and other members of the American working-class—although, according to Stephen Morgan and Jiwon Lee, minorities did have lower turnout in competitive states in 2016.

But I think Frank and Krugman have it only half right. Their view is that the working-class, if it voted according to its economic interests, would stop supporting Republicans and return to the Democratic Party fold.

The problem is, as is clear from the chart at the top of the post, the American working-class has lost out under a long series of both Republican and Democratic administrations. Neither party—conservative or liberal—has reflected the interests of working-class Americans in recent decades.

For example, between 1970 and 2014, the share of wages in national income plummeted from 51.5 percent to 42.3 percent.* As a result, the share of income going to the bottom 50 percent of Americans has literally collapsed, falling from 17.8 percent in 1970 to only 12.5 percent in 2014.

Meanwhile, the top 1 percent has enjoyed enormous success: its share of pre-tax income has soared in the past four and a half decades, rising from 12.5 percent to over 20 percent.

The problem for the American working-class is that neither party represents its interests—and no new party has emerged, at least on a national level, to take their place. So, working-class voters are left to float, under increasingly precarious economic conditions, in support of politicians from both parties who have pandered to a variety of identities and issues but have done nothing to effectively reverse the insults and injuries inflicted upon the American working-class in recent decades.

That’s what’s the matter with the United States.


*And, remember (as I explained in 2015), the wage share includes the salaries of CEOs and others at the top of the scale, which should rightly be excluded as distributions of the surplus. If they were subtracted, the share going to working-class Americans would have fallen even further.


One of the most important stories I read, but did not write about, while I was away was the launch of the World Inequality Report 2018.*

The authors of the report confirm what Branko Milanovic and others had previously discovered: that a representation of the unequal gains in world economic growth in recent decades looks like an elephant. Thus, the real incomes of the bottom 50 percent of the world’s population (except the poorest, at the very bottom) have increased, the incomes of those in the middle (especially the working-class in the United States and Western Europe) have decreased, and the global top 1 percent has captured an outsized portion of world economic growth since 1980.**

As I explained back in 2016, the “elephant curve” makes sense of some of the significant changes within global capitalism:

At one time (especially in the nineteenth century), [capitalist globalization] meant industrialization in the global north and deindustrialization in the mostly noncapitalist global south (which were, in turn, transformed into providers of raw materials, which became cheap commodity inputs into northern capitalist production). Later, especially after decolonization (following World War II), we saw the beginnings of capitalist development in the south (under the aegis of the state, with a set of policies we often refer to as import-substitution industrialization), which involved a reindustrialization of the south (producing consumer goods that were previously imported) and a change in the kinds of industry prevalent in the north (which both exported consumer goods to the rest of the world, which after the first Great Depression and world war were once again growing, and often provided inputs into the production of consumer goods elsewhere). Later (especially from the 1980s onward), with the accumulation of capital in India, China, Brazil, and elsewhere, noncapitalist economies were disrupted and millions of peasants and rural workers (and their children) were forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work in urban factories and offices. As a result, their monetary incomes rose (which is not to say their conditions of life necessarily improved), which is reflected in the growing elephant-body of the global distribution of income.

But that’s not the real elephant in the world. The big issue that everyone is aware of, but nobody wants to talk about, is the obscene degree of economic inequality in the United States.


As it turns out, if the global distribution of income in the future followed the trajectory set by the United States, inequality would significantly increase. As is clear in the chart above, the share of income going to the top 1 percent would rise dramatically (from less than 21 percent today to close to 28 percent of global income by 2050) and that of the bottom 50 percent would fall off precipitously (from approximately 10 percent today to close to 6 percent).

The grotesque level of inequality in the United States—now and as it worsens looking forward, with stagnant wages and enormous tax cuts for large corporations and wealthy individuals—is the real elephant in the world.


*The World Inequality Report, created by the World Inequality Labis the latest in a series of major surveys of the world economy, which includes the World Bank’s World Development Report (beginning in 1978), the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook (beginning in 1980, first published annually, then biannually), and the United Nation’s Human Development Report (beginning in 1990). Each, of course, uses a different lens to make sense of what is going on in the world economy.

**The elephant curve combines two different scaling methods of the horizontal axis: one by population size (meaning that the distance between different points on the x-axis is proportional to the size of the population of the corresponding income group), the other by the share of growth captured by income group (such that the distance between different points on the x-axis is proportional to the share of growth captured by the corresponding income group), as in the charts below: