By Isabel V. Sawhill and Christopher Pulliam – On both sides of the Atlantic, economic inequality has rocketed up the political agenda and inspired a new wave of populism. Wealth inequality is high and rising in the UK and staggeringly so in the US. The top 1% of American households now have more wealth than the bottom 90%. In the UK, the top 10% holds over half the wealth. The richest 400 individuals in the US average a net worth of $7.2 billion.
How did we get to this point? As Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital, famously argued, a capitalist economy left to its own devices will tend to produce not just inequality but ever-rising inequality of wealth – and the income derived from wealth. The main reason is because the returns earned on assets such as stocks and bonds normally exceed the growth of wages.
Imagine an economy with one capitalist and one wage earner. If the annual rate of return to financial assets is, say, 3%, but wages are only growing by 2%, more and more income ends up in the hands of the capitalist. Wealth then begets more wealth as the capitalist, not needing to spend all of his added income, adds to his existing wealth and reaps ever-growing income from that wealth. Unless a war or other shock destroys his wealth (think depression or the devastation in Europe after the Second World War), or government decides to tax it away, we end up with the rise in wealth inequality that we are now seeing in many rich countries – the US in particular.
There is something deeply disturbing about Piketty’s work. If one takes his thesis seriously, it means that the inequality of wealth and its corollary, income inequality, along with their continued growth, is the new normal. They are baked into a capitalist economy.
Of course, some financial capital gets invested in productive assets that help the economy grow. But productive investment and growth have slowed in recent decades, making it hard to argue that the rise in wealth at the top has benefited everyone. In the meantime, the accumulation of wealth in high-income households is one reason that income inequality is rising so sharply at the very top. While the richest 20% of US households, which benefit from a lot of human capital but not a lot of wealth, saw their market incomes rise by 96% between 1979 and 2016, the top 1% – which receives far more of their income from wealth – saw their incomes rise by a staggering 219%.
In short, growing wealth inequality spawns growing income inequality, so if we care about the latter, we cannot focus only on redistributing income. We need to tackle the accumulation of wealth as well.
What to do? Senator Elizabeth Warren, a serious contender for the US presidency, has proposed a wealth tax. more>