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Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer -- And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class

Here's why the economy become more risky and unreliable for most Americans even as it has created vast riches for the well-positioned and well-off.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer - And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class by Jacob S. Hacker & Paul Pierson ( Simon & Schuster, 2011).

Americans like crime dramas, and for good reasons. There is an exciting discovery that immediately creates mystery. The scene has clues to pore over (increasingly, with the latest in forensic technology). Suspects are found and interrogated, their motives questioned, their alibis probed. And if the crime drama is worth its salt, there are surprises along the way—unexpected twists and turns that hopefully lead to a satisfying explanation of the once-mysterious felony.

This book starts with a mystery every bit as puzzling as that of the typical crime drama, and far more important for the lives of Americans: Why, after a generation following World War II in which prosperity was broadly distributed up and down the income ladder, did the gains of economic growth start going mostly to those at the top? Why has the economy become more risky and unreliable for most Americans even as it has created vast riches for the well-positioned and well-off? The mystery is dramatic. The scene is strewn with clues. And yet this mystery has continued to bedevil some of the nation’s finest economic detectives.

It’s not as if the post-1970s transformation of our economy has gone unnoticed, of course: Even before the economic crisis that shook the nation in 2008, scores of economists and experts in allied fields, like sociology and political science, were creatively crunching the numbers and fiercely debating their meaning. Yet again and again, they have found themselves at dead ends or have missed crucial evidence. After countless arrests and interrogations, the demise of broad-based prosperity remains a frustratingly open case, unresolved even as the list of victims grows longer.

All this, we are convinced, is because a crucial suspect has largely escaped careful scrutiny: American politics. Understandably, investigators seeking to explain a set of economic events have sought out economic suspects. But the economic suspects, for the most part, have strong alibis. They were not around at the right time. Or they were in a lot of countries, doing just the same thing that they did in the United States, but without creating an American-style winner-take-all economy.

This chapter is not the place to pin the case on American politics—or spell out exactly how American politics did it. These are tasks for the rest of this book. But we will show what a convincing solution has to look like and introduce the clues that lead us to zero in on American politics as our prime suspect. In the next chapter, we will start laying out what we mean when we say, “American politics did it.” For, as will become clear, resolving our first mystery only raises a deeper one: How, in a political system built on the ideal of political equality and in which middle-class voters are thought to have tremendous sway, has democratic politics contributed so mightily to the shift toward winner-take-all?

Investigating the Scene

As in any investigation, we cannot find the suspects unless we know more or less what happened. A body dead for 24 hours yields a very different set of hunches than one dead for 24 years. Likewise, we need to be able to characterize the winner-take-all economy in clear, simple, and empirically verifiable terms to rule certain explanations out and others in. Unfortunately, much of the discussion of our current economic state of affairs has lacked such clarity.

Indeed, most of the economic investigators have actually been looking in the wrong place. Fixated on the widening gap between skilled and unskilled workers, they have divided the economic world into two large groups: the “haves” with college or advanced degrees; the “have-nots” without them. The clues suggest, however, that the real mystery is the runaway incomes and assets of the “have-it-alls”—those on the very highest rungs of the economic ladder. These fortunate few are, in general, no better educated or obviously more skilled than those on the rungs just below, who have experienced little or none of these meteoric gains.

The mystery, further, is not just why the have-it-alls have more and more. It is also how they have managed to restructure the economy to shift the risks of their new economic playground downward, saddling Americans with greater debt, tearing new holes in the safety net, and imposing broad financial risks on Americans as workers, investors, and taxpayers. The rising rewards at the top, as startling and important as they are, are only a symptom of a broader transformation of the American economy. The deeper mystery is how our economy stopped working to provide security and prosperity for the broad middle class. The deeper mystery, the mystery that has yet to be systematically outlined or unraveled, is the rise of the winner-take-all economy.

A big reason for the continuing confusion is that the largest body of evidence on which economic investigators have traditionally relied fails to capture the crucial facts. Most of those who have asked how the poor, middle class, and rich have fared have examined national surveys of income, such as the Census Bureau’s widely used Current Population Survey—the basis for those annual summaries of income and poverty trends that appear in the news late each summer. These surveys, however, have a serious problem: They do not reach many rich people and, even when they do, do not usually show their exact incomes. (Instead, they cap the maximum amount disclosed, a practice known as top coding.) As a result, most investigators are examining the winner-take-all economy without looking at the winners at all. It is as if Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous took you on an exciting tour of the financial life of a couple making $125,000 a year (“Look: their own washer and dryer!”).

Enter two young economists who have turned the investigation upside down: Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. They are a transcontinental team—Piketty is now based at the Paris School of Economics, while Saez is at the University of California, Berkeley (both are natives of France). In 2009, at age thirty-six, Saez was awarded the John Bates Clark Medal for the economist younger than forty making the greatest contribution to the discipline. The medal was, in large part, for pathbreaking work that he and Piketty have done using income tax statistics to paint a new and revealing portrait of the distribution of economic rewards in the United States and other rich nations.

Piketty and Saez’s approach is simple but revolutionary. Rather than talking to witnesses, the most important of whom (the rich) cannot be easily found, they scour the scene itself. More precisely, Piketty and Saez tap into a source of data that is particularly good at revealing what the have-it-alls actually have: namely, income reported when paying taxes. Information that taxpayers provide about their wages, salaries, capital gains, and other income may contain errors—and sometimes deliberate errors. But tax forms require careful documentation that income surveys don’t, and taxpayers have strong legal inducements to get the numbers right. More important, the one group that the tax code generally singles out for special scrutiny is the rich, the very people whom income surveys tend to miss. To be sure, the tax data are not without flaws, and Piketty and Saez assiduously try to correct them (for example, they adjust the results to account for the fact that some people don’t file tax returns).* But they are enormously better than survey results in capturing the full distribution of economic rewards.

And what the Piketty and Saez evidence uniquely shows is just how sharply our economy has tilted toward winner-take-all. Most of the gains of economic growth since the 1970s have gone precisely to those that the commonly used surveys miss—not just the top 10 percent, but especially the top 1 percent, and especially the highest reaches of the top 1 percent.

*We should emphasize that the Piketty and Saez data only allow us to say how well different income groups are doing, not how well individual households fare over time—an issue with traditional surveys of income as well. We can say the rich of today are richer than in the past, not how much change there is from year to year in who is rich and who is not. But, as we shall see, taking into account the upward or downward income mobility of households does not change this basic picture. It may even strengthen it, since long-term income mobility is much more limited than Americans believe, and may have declined since the 1960s. In any case, income groups are not statistical fictions. If the rich grow much richer, while the poor and middle class do not, the structure of society will look very different.

Three Big Clues

Compared with the standard surveys that portray the rich as earning upper-middle-class salaries, Piketty and Saez’s data are like DNA evidence in a case previously investigated using only eyewitness accounts. As it turns out, the DNA evidence reveals three essential clues that were previously neglected.

Clue #1: Hyperconcentration of Income

The first clue is that the gains of the winner-take-all economy, befitting its name, have been extraordinarily concentrated. Though economic gaps have grown across the board, the big action is at the top, especially the very top.

To grasp this point, consider an alternate reality in which income grows at the same pace for all groups in society. In this scenario, the rich get richer at the same rate as everyone else, so the share of national income earned by the rich stays constant. We might call this imaginary country Broadland—a counterfactual parallel to the real world of runaway gains at the top that the writer Robert Frank has evocatively termed “Richistan.”

Broadland would not be some kind of egalitarian fantasy. It would simply be a country where economic growth was making the income distribution neither more equal nor less. It would, in fact, be pretty close to the situation that existed from the end of World War II until the early 1970s, a period in which incomes actually grew at a slightly faster rate at the bottom and middle of the economic distribution than at the top.

But Broadland is not the world of the past generation. Instead, the share of income earned by the top 1 percent has increased from around 8 percent in 1974 to more than 18 percent in 2007 (the last year covered by the data)—a more than twofold increase. If you include capital gains like investment and dividend income, the share of the top 1 percent has gone from just over 9 percent to 23.5 percent. The only time since 1913 (the first year of the data) that this share has been higher was 1928, on the eve of the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, when it tickled 24 percent.

But the top 1 percent, while seemingly an exclusive group, is much too broad a category to pinpoint the most fortunate beneficiaries of the post-1970s income explosion at the top. The Piketty and Saez evidence allows us to climb higher up the economic ladder and peer into the pocket-books of the richest tenth of a percent and even the richest hundredth of a percent—yes, 0.1 percent and 0.01 percent—of Americans. The latter comprise the highest-earning 15,000 or so families in the United States, a group in which we would expect Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to have little trouble finding private jets and opulent mansions.

Plenty of jets and mansions, it turns out: The top 0.1 percent (the richest one in a thousand households) collectively rake in more than $1 trillion a year including capital gains—which works out to an average annual income of more than $7.1 million. In 1974, by comparison, the top 0.1 percent’s average income was just over $1 million. (All these incomes are adjusted for inflation by expressing them in 2007 dollars.) In terms of the share of national income earned, the top 0.1 percent have seen their slice of the pie grow from 2.7 percent to 12.3 percent of income—a more than fourfold increase.

We shall say more about who is in this rarefied group in the chapters to come, but for now, let us simply note that its denizens are not, for the most part, superstars and celebrities in the arts, entertainment, and sports. Nor are they rentiers, living off their accumulated wealth, as was true in the early part of the last century. A substantial majority are company executives and managers, and a growing share of these are financial company executives and managers. High earners in law, medicine, real estate, and other potentially lucrative fields also make an appearance, but they pale in prominence to the “working rich” of the executive world.

By now it will come as no surprise that the gains within this super-rich group are themselves highly concentrated. While things have been good for the top 0.1 percent, the top 0.01 percent (the richest one in ten thousand households) has seen an even more spectacular rise. From less than $4 million in average annual income in 1974, the average member of this select group now earns more than $35 million. From earning less than 1 of every 100 dollars, these supremely fortunate souls now earn more than 1 of every 17—or more than 6 percent of national income accruing to 0.01 percent of families. This is the highest share of income going to this group since the data began to be collected in 1913.

The more closely we look at changes in the distribution of economic rewards, the more it becomes clear that the big gains have been concentrated at the very, very top. According to Piketty and Saez’s revealing evidence regarding pre-tax incomes, we have gone from Broadland to Richistan—from a world in which most of the nation’s income gains accrue to the bottom 90 percent of households (the pattern of the economic expansion of the 1960s) to one in which more than half go to the richest 1 percent (the pattern of the last economic expansion from 2002 to 2007). For those in the tightly circumscribed winner’s circle of the winner-take-all economy, the last generation has truly been a golden age.

Clue #2: Sustained Hyperconcentration

The DNA evidence reveals a second important clue: The shift of income toward the top has been sustained, increasing steadily (and, by historical standards, extremely rapidly) since around 1980.

Figure 1 tells the story. The poor may not be getting poorer, but the rich have been steadily pulling away: in good times (the strong economy of the mid- to late 1990s) and in bad times (the very weak economy of the early 1980s); under Republican presidents (Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush, whose presidencies are shaded in gray on the figure) and under Democratic President Clinton. The only brief reversals occur during the dives in the stock market that occurred in the late 1980s and around 2000. But the occasional setback associated with a decline in the stock market has only been a springboard to new heights. For thirty years, the good times have just kept rolling.

The solution to our mystery, in short, needs to account for a simple fact: The rising share of national income captured by the richest Americans is a long-term trend beginning around 1980. It is a trend, moreover, that is not obviously related to either the business cycle or the shifting partisan occupancy of the White House. The partisan to-and-fro and economic ebb and flow surely had some part to play. But something else was at work in creating the winner-take-all economy—something that fostered a sharp divide between broadly shared prosperity and winner-take-all.

Clue #3: Limited Benefits for the Nonrich

We come, finally, to the third clue—and perhaps the most puzzling of all. It is so puzzling, and potentially controversial, that we spend much of the rest of this chapter documenting and delving into it.

The third clue is this: In an era in which those at the top reaped massive gains, the economy stopped working for middle- and working-class Americans. We know that the rich grew fabulously richer over this period. We know that relative to the rich, the rest of Americans lost ground. But what we have not yet investigated is whether they lost ground overall. How well did they fare in an era in which so large a share of economic gains accrued to those above them? Did they become richer and more economically secure? Did they see their chance of rising to the top increase? How much, in other words, did they really benefit from the winner-take-all economy?

The evidence can be summarized in a two-word answer: Not much. When we look at the DNA evidence on U.S. incomes, we find that most Americans experienced extremely modest gains over the era in which the rewards at the top multiplied. This is true, surprisingly and revealingly, even for the mostly highly skilled individuals just below the very top rungs of the income ladder. But the evidence on income gains actually understates the case—by a lot. When we expand our view beyond income to take in the broader canvas of the winner-take-all economy, the argument for thinking that the gains of America’s top-heavy economic growth “trickled down” becomes even weaker. This is not just a story of relative income erosion. The fallout of the winner-take-all economy has reached broadly and deeply into the security of the middle class—and, as recent events reveal, the entire American economy.

 
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