In light of the recent attention on the importance of capital ownership as source of inequality, Arin Dube reminds me of this piece in the Economists' Voice from March 2012 that he published along with Ethan Kaplan ("Occupy Wall Street and the Political Economy of Inequality"). They argue that upper tail income inequality is best understood through the lens of increasing power of those owning capital. Here is an excerpt provided by Arin:
... During the 1990s and 2000s, most economists viewed the growth in the upper-tail inequality as largely representing the same phenomenon as the growth in wage inequality elsewhere—primarily a change in the demand for skills through technological change, with some role for policy ... Missing from all this was a discussion about how upper-tail earnings inequality could be better understood as an increase in the power of those with control over financial and physical capital. The exceptions were mostly outside of mainstream economics (e.g., Duménil and Lévy 2004).
Consider three pieces of evidence. First, there has been a broad decline in the labor share of income from around 66 percent in 1970 to 60 percent in 2007. Moreover, as measured, labor income includes compensation going to top executives—the modern day equivalent of the nineteenth century capitalist. The exclusion of their compensation would show a substantially greater drop in labor’s share. Additionally, most of the growth in executive compensation has been capital-based, i.e., through stock options but appears in national accounts as labor income (Frydman and Molloy 2011).
Second, based on tax data, the majority of income at the top comes from capital-based earnings (capital gains, dividends, entrepreneurial income and rent). In 2007, this proportion was 62 percent and 74 percent for the top 1 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively (Figure 1).
Third, the biggest driver of upper-tail inequality—both in terms of capital and wage based income—was finance, the sector which governs the allocation of capital. Between 2002 and 2007, 34 percent of all private sector profits came from the financial sector. Meanwhile, studies of financial sector pay setting suggest that the exorbitant finance premium in earnings was driven by financial sector profits (Philippon and Resheff 2009, Crotty 2011).
Overall, a focus on the 1 percent concentrates attention on the aspect of inequality most clearly tied to the distribution of income between labor and capital. This type of inequality is seen as being the least fair, as economic rents and returns to wealth are often perceived as unearned income (Atkinson 2009). ...