At first, the outraged members of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York were mainly met with ridicule. They didn't seem to stand a chance and were judged incapable of going up against their adversaries, Wall Street's bankers and financial managers, either intellectually or in terms of economic knowledge.
"We are the 99 percent," is the continuing chant of the protestors, who are now in their seventh week of marching through the streets of Manhattan. And, surprisingly, they have hit upon the crux of America's problems with precisely this sentence. Indeed, they have given shape to a development in the country that has been growing more acute for decades, one that numerous academics and experts have tried to analyze elsewhere in lengthy books and essays. It's a development so profound and revolutionary that it has shaken the world's most powerful nation to its core.
Inequality in America is greater than it has been in almost a century. Those fortunate enough to belong to the 1 percent, made up of the super-rich, stand on one side of the divide; the remaining 99 percent on the other. Even for a country that has always accepted opposite extremes as part of its identity, the chasm has simply grown too vast.
Those who succeed in the US are congratulated rather than berated. Resenting other people's wealth is viewed as supporting class struggle, which is something very frowned upon.
Still, statistics indicate that the growing disparity is genuinely overwhelming. In fact, the 400 wealthiest Americans now own more than the "lower" 150 million Americans put together.
Nearly two-thirds of net private assets are concentrated in the hands of 5 percent of Americans. In comparison, the upper 5 percent of Germany hold less than half of net assets. In 2009 alone, at the same time as the US was being convulsed by mass layoffs, the number of millionaires in the country skyrocketed.
Indeed, if you look at the reports it compiles on every country in the world, even the CIA has concluded that wealth disparity is greater in the US than in Tunisia or Egypt.
A New 'Gilded Age'
In a book published in 2010, American political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson discuss how this "hyperconcentration of economic gains at the top" also existed in the United States in the early 20th century, when industrial magnates -- such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan -- dominated the upper stratum of society and held the country firmly in their grip for years.
Writer Mark Twain coined the phrase "the Gilded Age" to describe that period of rapid growth, a time when the dazzling exterior of American life actually concealed mass unemployment, poverty and a society ripped in two.
Economists and political scientists believe the US has entered a new Gilded Age, a period of systematic inequality dominated by a new class of super-rich. The only difference is that, this time around, the super-rich are hedge fund managers and financial magnates instead of oil and rail barons.
A Threat to the World Economy
The academics fear this change could have serious consequences for the country's economic future. As they see it, this extreme inequality threatens to dramatically slow growth in the world's largest economy. This is part of a development, they argue, that has been under way for years but remained largely hidden in the years of cheap credit, rising real estate prices and excessive consumption -- when it seemed everyone was on the way up. And the problems only came to light with the arrival of the financial crisis.
Through the 1970s, income for Americans across all social classes rose nearly in lockstep, by an annual average of roughly 3 percent. Starting in the 1980s, however, this trend underwent a fundamental transformation. Granted, the economy continued to grow -- but almost exclusively to the benefit of the country's top earners. The major economic expansion under President Ronald Reagan benefited only a few, and the problem only grew worse under George W. Bush.
At least since the beginning of the millennium, it has no longer been a simple matter of two societal extremes drifting further apart. Instead, the development is also accelerating. In the years of economic growth between 2002 and 2007, 65 percent of the income gains went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. Likewise, although the productivity of the US economy has increased considerably since the beginning of the millennium, most Americans haven't benefited from it, with average annual incomes falling by more than 10 percent, to $49,909 (35,184).