The Second Gilded Age Has America Become an Oligarchy?
Part 2: The Winner-Take-All Economy
Even for a country that loves extremes, this is a new and unprecedented development. Indeed, as Hacker and Pierson see it, the United States has developed into a "winner-take-all economy."
The political scientists analyzed statistics and studies concerning income development and other economic data from the last decades. They conclude that: "A generation ago, the United States was a recognizable, if somewhat more unequal, member of the cluster of affluent democracies known as mixed economies, where fast growth was widely shared. No more. Since around 1980, we have drifted away from that mixed-economy cluster, and traveled a considerable distance toward another: the capitalist oligarchies, like Brazil, Mexico, and Russia, with their much greater concentration of economic bounty."
This 1 percent of American society now controls more than half of the country's stocks and securities. And while the middle class is once again grappling with a lost decade that failed to bring increases in income, the high earners in the financial industry have raked in sometimes breathtaking sums. For example, the average income for securities traders has steadily climbed to $360,000 a year.
Still, that's nothing compared to the trend in executives' salaries. In 1980, American CEOs earned 42 times more than the average employee. Today, that figure has skyrocketed to more than 300 times. Last year, 25 of the country's highest-paid CEOs earned more than their companies paid in taxes.
By way of comparison, top executives at the 30 blue-chip companies making up Germany's DAX stock market index rarely earn over 100 times the salaries of their low-level employees, and that figure is often around 30 or 40 times.
'The Result of Policy Choices'
Hacker and Pierson are far from the only economists and political scientists to recognize a fundamental societal distortion. Larry Bartels, one of America's leading political scientists, also believes America has entered a new Gilded Age. Bartels' 2008 book on the subject, "Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age," has drawn a great deal of attention and even been quoted by President Barack Obama.
"The really dramatic economic gains over the past 30 years have been concentrated among the extremely rich," Bartels writes, "largely bypassing even the vast majority of ordinary rich people in the top 5 percent of income distribution." He doesn't see this fundamental shift in the distribution of wealth as having resulted from market forces or drastic events, such as the financial crisis. Instead, he believes they are "the result of policy choices."
As Bartels explains, much as the economic giants of the Gilded Age developed such enormous influence that they could dictate basic political conditions, today's Wall Street bosses and CEOs have successfully arranged extensive deregulation for their industries. Indeed, he argues that this is the only thing that can explain how hedge fund managers suddenly started making billions of dollars a year. Former Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill, for example, kept a framed pen in his office as a symbol of his influence. It was the pen President Bill Clinton -- at Weill's instigation -- used in 1999 to sign into law legislation repealing the provisions in the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 that separated the transactions of investment and commercial banks.
At the same time, Bartels writes, the wealthy receive enormous tax breaks worth hundreds of billions of dollars. In the 1970s, capital gains tax was 40 percent, and the highest income tax bracket paid a rate of 70 percent. Under George W. Bush, these rates dropped to 15 percent and 35 percent, respectively. For example, it emerged a few weeks ago that legendary investor Warren Buffett earned $63 million last year but was only required to pay 17 percent in taxes.
Did Inequality Cause the Crisis?
In a medium-term, the consequences of this societal divide threaten the productivity of the entire economy. Granted, American economists in particular have long espoused the view that inequality is simply a necessary side effect of above-average growth. But that position is now being called into question.
In fact, recent research indicates that the economies of countries experiencing periods of pronounced inequality often show considerably less growth and more instability. On the other hand, it also finds that economies grow faster when income is more evenly distributed.
In a study published in September, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also concluded that: "The recent global economic crisis, with its roots in US financial markets, may have resulted, in part at least, from the increase in inequality" in the country.