Paul Krugman reviews the implications of data from 2004 on the distribution of income that have just become available. As he notes, and as noted here in a post discussing the Piketty and Saez study referenced below, the data show that recent trends towards more concentrated income continued between 2003 and 2004 and there is reason to believe the trend towards more concentration will persist into the future unless there are changes in policy
Left Behind Economics, by Paul Krugman, U.S. Economy Commentary, NY Times: I’d like to say that there’s a real dialogue taking place about the state of the U.S. economy, but the discussion leaves a lot to be desired. In general, the conversation sounds like this:
Bush supporter: “Why doesn’t President Bush get credit for a great economy? I blame liberal media bias.”
Informed economist: “But it’s not a great economy for most Americans. Many families are actually losing ground, and only a very few affluent people are doing really well.”
Bush supporter: “Why doesn’t President Bush get credit for a great economy? I blame liberal media bias.” ...
Many observers, even if they acknowledge the growing concentration of income..., find it hard to believe that this concentration could be proceeding so rapidly as to deny most Americans any gains from economic growth. Yet newly available data show that that’s exactly what happened in 2004 ...
Here’s what happened... The U.S. economy grew 4.2 percent, a very good number. Yet ... real median family income — the purchasing power of the typical family — actually fell. Meanwhile, poverty increased, as did the number of Americans without health insurance. So where did the growth go?
The answer comes from the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, whose long-term estimates of income equality have become the gold standard for research on this topic... They show that even if you exclude capital gains from a rising stock market, in 2004 the real income of the richest 1 percent of Americans surged by almost 12.5 percent. Meanwhile, the average real income of the bottom 99 percent of the population rose only 1.5 percent. In other words, a relative handful of people received most of the benefits of growth.
There are a couple of additional revelations in the 2004 data. One is that growth didn’t just bypass the poor and the lower middle class, it bypassed the upper middle class too. Even people at the 95th percentile of the income distribution — that is, people richer than 19 out of 20 Americans — gained only modestly. ...
The other revelation is that being highly educated was no guarantee of sharing in the benefits of economic growth. There’s a persistent myth, perpetuated by economists who should know better ... that rising inequality ... is mainly a matter of a rising gap between those with a lot of education and those without. But census data show that the real earnings of the typical college graduate actually fell in 2004.
In short, it’s a great economy if you’re a high-level corporate executive or someone who owns a lot of stock. For most other Americans, economic growth is a spectator sport.
Can anything be done to spread the benefits of a growing economy more widely? Of course. A good start would be to increase the minimum wage, which in real terms is at its lowest level in half a century.
But don’t expect this administration or this Congress to do anything to limit the growing concentration of income. Sometimes I even feel sorry for these people and their apologists, who are prevented from acknowledging that inequality is a problem by both their political philosophy and their dependence on financial support from the wealthy. That leaves them no choice but to keep insisting that ordinary Americans — who have, in fact, been bypassed by economic growth — just don’t understand how well they’re doing.