Mitt’s Offshore Shenanigans: The Bigger StoryAll those official government stats on the maldistribution of wealth in the United States — and the world — vastly understate the actual extent of our contemporary inequality, says a landmark new study.
Are America’s rich getting richer? They’re certainly making much more than ever before. Every official income measure we have shows that America’s most affluent are upping their incomes at a much faster clip than everyone else.
How fast? Between 1980 and 2010, notes an analysis of IRS tax data this past spring by economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, incomes for America’s top 1 percent more than doubled, after inflation, to an average $1.02 million.
Average incomes for the nation’s top 0.1 percent, over that same span, more than tripled, and at the tippy top of America’s economic summit — the top 0.01 percent — average incomes more than quadrupled, to $23.8 million in 2010.
And what about the rest of us? After inflation, average incomes for America’s bottom 90 percent actually fell — by 4.8 percent — between 1980 and 2010.
Income stats tell us how much people make. Wealth stats, by contrast, tell us how much people have. The two, common sense tells us, ought to be related. If incomes are becoming much more unequal, then the distribution of our national wealth ought to be becoming much more unequal, too.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case, at least not according to the household wealth data collected by the Federal Reserve Board. Last week, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service released an analysis of the latest Fed data that shows no significant expansion in the gap between the wealth of the awesomely affluent and the rest of America over the last two dozen years.
In 2010, the Fed data indicate, America’s top 1 percent held 34.5 percent of the nation’s wealth, almost the same exact share of the nation’s wealth that the top 1 percent held in 1995 and not all that much more than the 30.1 percent share that America’s top 1 percent held in 1989.
The income and wealth numbers, in other words, just don’t add up. How could the top 1 percent share of America’s wealth be holding relatively steady over the same span of time that top 1 percent incomes have been soaring and bottom 90 percent incomes have been sinking?
We have ourselves a paradox here. What could explain it? One explanation might be that the Federal Reserve hasn’t adequately counted the wealth of the wealthy. Indeed, Fed researchers do acknowledge that they don’t take into account — for privacy reasons — the wealth of anyone in the annual Forbes list of America’s 400 richest. In 2010, this top 400 held a stunning $1.37 trillion in net worth.
But even if the Federal Reserve had taken this wealth into account, the top 1 percent share of U.S. wealth would have increased by not much more than a percentage point, not enough to solve the inequality paradox.
So what else could explain our paradox? Maybe the rich are simply living over-the-top, wasting their excess income on expensive food and frolic. But wasteful consumption can’t explain the inequality paradox either. Deep pockets in America’s top 0.01 percent could shell out $5,000 every single day of the year and still have 93 percent of their annual incomes left to spend.
So what can explain the disconnect between the extraordinary income gains of the rich and the modest rise in their share of national wealth?
The London-based Tax Justice Network has an answer. The world’s super rich, the international group has just reported, are stuffing — and concealing — phenomenal quantities of their cash in secret global tax havens.
The Network’s new global tax-dodging study, the most detailed ever conducted, “conservatively” computes the total wealth sitting in these havens, as of 2010, at $21 trillion. That total could plausibly run as high at $32 trillion.
“Almost all these hidden assets are owned by the world’s wealthiest individuals,”note Tax Justice Network analysts, a reality that means that all previous studies “exploring economic inequality have systematically underestimated the wealth and income enjoyed by the world’s wealthiest individuals.”
The lead researcher on the Tax Justice Network’s new research, James Henry, formerly served as the chief economist at the prestigious McKinsey corporate consulting group. In the Network’s new report, The Price of Offshore Revisited, he mines a wide range of public and private sector data sources to gauge capital flows in and out of “offshore” secrecy jurisdictions all around the world.
These havens, notes Henry, host over 3.5 million paper companies, thousands of shell banks and insurance companies, and “tens of thousands of shell subsidiaries for the world’s largest banks, accounting firms, and energy, software, drug, and defense companies.”
This vast web, aided and abetted by weak and poorly enforced government regulations, has enabled fewer than 100,000 people — just .001 percent of the world’s population — to “control over 30 percent of the world’s financial wealth.”
Americans make up, we know from various previous surveysof the world’s ultra rich, almost a third of the global super wealthy. That would put the American share of unrecorded offshore private assets as high as $10 trillion.
Add this $10 trillion to the wealth of America’s top 1 percent and the inequality disconnect between wealth and income largely disappears. The top 1 percent share of the nation’s household wealth, a steady one-third according to the Fed Reserve data, jumps to the neighborhood of nearly one half.
Paradox solved. The distribution of wealth in the United States has become more top-heavy at a ferociously fast rate, just like the distribution of income.
Now we have a much bigger problem to solve: ending the march to ever greater inequality, narrowing that vast gap between wealthy tax dodgers and the rest of us. Shutting down tax havens might make a great place to start.
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Robert de Vries, Could inequality have caused the financial crisis?Inequalities, July 12, 2012. A solid survey of the two schools of thought on how inequality has ushered in financial calamity.
Carl Gibson, Time for a Maximum Wage, Rim Country Gazette, July 15, 2012. A co-founder the US Uncut campaign against corporate tax dodging makes the case for capping income.
Dean Baker, Technology doesn’t cause inequality,Guardian, July 16, 2012. Apologists for inequality like to blame technology for income concentration. But don’t blame high tech. Blame changes in public policy.
Shawn Fremstad, Family structure is overrated as an explanation of inequality, Center for Economic and Policy Research, July 16-17, 2012. A New York Times front-page story on single moms diverts attention from the real driving forces behind America’s great economic divide.
Dylan Matthews, What’s so special about equality of opportunity? Washington Post, July 16, 2012. Those who consider equality of opportunity more important than economic equality are ignoring economic reality. The two go hand-in-hand.
Sylvia Allegretto, The wrecking ball, Berkeley Blog, July 16, 2012. Observations on the wealth of the wealthy from one of nation’s top authorities on wealth distribution.
Salvatore Babones, Are Americans Better Off than Their Parents?Inequality.Org, July 18, 2012. Deconstructing the new report from the Pew Economic Mobility Project.
David Callahan, High Profits, Low Wages, and the Growth of Inequality,Policy Shop, July 19, 2012. Most low-wage U.S. workers aren’t laboring at struggling start-ups. They’re working for major corporations that richly reward their top execs.