By Jonathan Rothwell at Brookings
The spectacular economic rise of the top 1 percent is now common knowledge, thanks in large part to the work of Thomas Piketty and his collaborators. The top 1 percent of U.S. residents now earn 21 percent of total national income, up from 10 percent in 1979.
Curbing this inequality requires a clear understanding of its causes. Three of the standard explanations—capital shares, skills, and technology—are myths. The real cause of elite inequality is the lack of open access and market competition in elite investment and labor markets. To bring the elite down to size, we need to make them compete.
Myth 1: Capital vs. labor share
In his recent and otherwise valuable book, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, not the Few, Robert Reich claims that the share of income going to workers has fallen from 50 percent in 1960 to 42 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, corporate profits have risen. In short: trillions of dollars have gone to capitalists instead of workers. The sensible policy responses, as Reich and others have stressed, are to increase taxes on corporate income and capital gains, and widen capital ownership.
These might be a good idea for other reasons, but the basic facts currently being used to justify them are wrong. Between 1980 and 2014, corporate profits actually represented alower share of GDP (4.9 percent) than between 1950 and 1979 (5.4 percent).
Income from the main four capital sources— dividends, interest, rental income, and proprietor income—has nudged upwards as a share of GDP by just one percentage point between these two periods, and entirely because of higher interest income, which mainly goes to retirees who own Treasury bonds.
So, what’s going on here? The simple explanation is that wages and salaries are an inadequate measure of the share of economic benefits flowing to labor. Wages and salaries have declined as a share of total income, largely for two reasons. First, total national income includes government transfer payments, which are rising because of an aging population (e.g., Social Security and Medicare). Second, companies have greatly increased non-salary compensation (e.g., healthcare and retirement benefits). Total worker compensation plus transfer payments have actually slightly increased as a share of total national income, from 79 percent between 1951 and 1979, to 81 percent for the years from 1980 to 2015:
Myth 2: Super skills lead to super riches
In his “defense of the one percent,” economist Greg Mankiw argues that elite earnings are based on their higher levels of IQ, skills, and valuable contributions to the economy. The globally-integrated, technologically-powered economy has shifted so that very highly-talented people can generate very high incomes.
It is certainly true that rising relative returns to education have driven up inequality. But as I have written earlier, this is true among the bottom 99 percent. There is no evidence to support the idea that the top 1 percent consists mostly of people of “exceptional talent.” In fact, there is quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.
Drawing on state administrative records for millions of individual Americans and their employers from 1990 to 2011, John Abowd and co-authors have estimated how far individual skills influence earnings in particular industries. They find that people working in the securities industry (which includes investment banks and hedge funds) earn 26 percent more, regardless of skill. Those working in legal services get a 23 percent pay raise. These are among the two industries with the highest levels of “gratuitous pay”—pay in excess of skill (or “rents” in the economics literature). At the other end of the spectrum, people working in eating and drinking establishments earn 40 percent below their skill level.
Using data from an OECD cognitive test of thousands of Americans and adults from around the world (the PIACC), I find that workers in the financial and insurance sector get a pay bump equivalent to a decile of the earnings distribution (e.g., pushing them up from the 80thto 90th percentile). This is the largest premium aside from the quasi-monopolistic mining and utilities sectors:
At the occupational level, CEOs are paid 1.5 deciles above their “IQ.” Health professionals also receive a very large boost in earnings.
Using microdata from the Census Bureau, I find that the “gratuitous pay” premium in certain industries has increased dramatically since 1980. Workers in securities and investment saw their excess pay rise from 41 percent to 60 percent between 1980 and 2013. Legal services went from 27 percent to 37 percent. Hospitals went from 21 percent to 39 percent. Meanwhile, those working in eating and drinking establishments consistently hovered around negative 20 percent:
Myth 3: Technology
Some entrepreneurs grow enormously rich as a result of founding a company with an innovative product. This applies to Mark Zuckerberg, as well as to Bill Gates and other mega-stars of the tech sector. Venture capitalist Paul Graham has recently written about this as an important aspect of inequality, and he’s correct. It is. But again, it has little to do with the rise of the 1 percent.
Take some of the most important tech industries: software, internet publishing, data processing, hosting, computer systems design, scientific research and development, and computer and electronics manufacturing. Combined, they represent just 5 percent of workers in the top 1 percent of income earners.
So, if they're not in Silicon Valley making awesome stuff, where are the 1 percent working? Top answer: doctor’s offices. No industry has more top earners than physicians’ offices, with 7.2 percent. Hospitals are home to 7 percent. Legal services and securities and financial investments industries account for another 7 and 6 percent, respectively. Real estate, dentistry, and banking provide a large number, too: