“We are the 99%” is the slogan of the Anti-Wall Street campaign in the US. This refers to the sheer inequality of income and wealth which exists in America. According to the latest figures, the top 1% of income holders in the US receive over 20% of all income and own nearly 35% of all America’s wealth.
According to the latest estimates of Arthur Kennickell at the US Federal Reserve (Ponds and Streams: wealth and income in the US 1989 to 2007, http://www.federalreserve.gov/pubs/feds/2009/200913/200913pap.pdf), in 2007, the top 1% of wealth holders had net worth (that’s total wealth net of any debt) of nearly $22trn, or 33.8% of all net wealth in America ($65trn). He also estimated that the top 1% of income earners had 21.4% of all income received in 2006 – or $2trn each year out of $9trn in total. If we add in the next 4% of wealth holders, then the top 5% have over 60% of all wealth and 37% of all income.
It is increasingly fashionable to argue that inequality is the cause of the crisis in capitalism right now (for just one example among many, see Nouriel Roubini’s The instability of inequality, http://www.economonitor.com/nouriel/2011/10/17/full-analysis-the-instability-of-inequality/). This is odd. The cause of recessions and instability in capitalism in the 1970s was not assigned to inequality of income or wealth. Indeed, many mainstream and heterodox economists argued the opposite, namely that it was caused by wages rising to squeeze profits in overall national income – see chapter 20 in my book, The Great Recession. But now, many Marxist economists argue that this current crisis is a product of wages being too low and profits too high. This leads to low wage earners being force to borrow more and thus eventually causing a credit crisis. So it seems that the underlying cause of capitalist crisis can vary. The trouble with this eclectic approach is that it becomes unclear what the cause of capitalist crisis is – is it wages squeezing profits as in the 1970s or is it low wages leading to a collapse of demand in the noughties?
Inequality of wealth and income may not be the cause of capitalist crises, but it is certainly a product of capitalism. Capitalism, or the private profit society, is increasingly inefficient in delivering our needs and increasingly unstable. But it has always been unjust and unequal. Actually, inequality of incomes and wealth in a society is a feature of all class societies, whether it is slavery, Asian absolutism, priestly castes, feudalism or capitalism. By definition, inequality accompanies a class society. After all, why would anybody want to be a member of the ruling elite if they did not enjoy the fruits, namely extreme wealth and income as well as power and status. Indeed, even priestly castes, supposedly engaged in waiting for the rewards of the ‘after life’ and telling their flock that they must also wait, were not slow in coming forward to benefit from the material life? Just take a look at the Vatican and other Christian churches, the mosques of the Middle East, the synagogues and going further back to the priestly rulers of Ancient Egypt, of the Aztecs and Incas of south America. Class society means that the ruling class controls the surplus generated by the labour time of the non-rulers, in whatever form. That means inequality is a consequence in all class societies and is not a specific feature of capitalism that could explain its continual boom and slumps.
How unequal in wealth and income is the world (not just in the US) right now? Well, Branco Milanovic at the World Bank has studied global inequality over the years carefully in a series of books and papers. His measure of inequality is not a measure between nations but between individuals, even though inequality is decided more by which country you live in than by inequality within a country. Global elites (the top 10%) take 57% of all the income created in the world and this ratio has hardly moved in 100 years. As Milanovic explains, this flies in the face of the predictions of mainstream economics that argues inequality should decline as economies get richer.
Simon Kuznets developed what is called the Kuznets curve in the mid-1950s. This tracked the idea that in pre-industrial societies where everybody is poor, inequality is low. When industrialisation takes place, as in the UK in early 19th century and in the rest of major capitalist economies later in that century, then inequality grows between the urban and rural populations. Then, as an economy matures, the urban-rural gap narrows and the welfare state kicks in and inequality falls. So the Kuznets curve of inequality is an upside down U. The other mainstream theory is that, as global trade expands, the demand for low-skill labour in poor countries rises and so their incomes rise relatively to those in mature economies. Inequality should decline.
Well, the evidence refutes both those theories. Global inequality of income – i.e. between world citizens – is high and has stayed high. The Gini coefficient (which measures the ratio of income or wealth held by cohorts of individuals) has remained very high globally, near 70. It has risen in the US and the UK over the last 30 years and it has also jumped in China. So the richest 1% of the world’s population now receive nearly 15% of all the world’s income, while the poorest 20% receive only just over 1%!
Since the 1980s, inequality in incomes has grown in nearly all the major capitalist economies, but particularly in the so-called Anglo-Saxon, deregulated ‘free market’ economies like the US and the UK (the top 1% had about 10% in the early 1980s and now have nearer 20%). In Continental Europe, inequality has been static – the top 1% had about 10% in the 1980s and now have much the same ratio. In the US, average real incomes grew at a 1.3% rate between 1993 and 2008, but if you exclude the top 1%, the rate of increase was only 0.75% a year. The incomes of the top 1% achieved a 3.9% a year rise, taking 58% of all the increase in real incomes between 1993 and 2008. Indeed, in the great US booms of 1993-2000 and 2001-2007, the top 1% achieved annual growth in their incomes of over 10%, while the bottom 99% achieved only 1.3-2.7% a year.
The most comprehensive and up-to-date analysis of inequality in the capitalist world has been published jointly by the most eminent researchers in the field recently – Anthony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty (http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/index.php) and Emmanuel Saez (http://elsa.berkeley.edu/~saez/). In their recent piece in the Journal of Economic Literature, Top incomes in the long run of history, they looked at top income shares for more than 20 countries. They concluded that top income shares have increased “substantially” in the last 30 years. The top incomes share fell somewhat in the early part of the 20th century, mainly during two world wars and the Great Depression. Inequality declines in wars and recessions because profits collapse more than wages. Also, as wealth in industry and in stocks and shares fall, the income from them falls for the richest and that’s a bigger part of their income than for rest of us. In the last 30 years, the authors find that in all of the Western English-speaking countries and in China and India, the share of income going to the top 1% and 5% rose, with the US leading the way. While southern Europe and the Nordic states also saw a rise in inequality, the change was small and from a lower level. In mainland Europe (France, Germany and the Netherlands), there was no increase at all. Atkinson also looked at the global rich, defined as those with more than 20 times the mean world income. In the early 1990s, they constituted just 0.14% of the world population or 7m people, with more than 2m in the US. These very rich earners had doubled in size in the US between 1970 and 1992.
The top 10% of income earners in the US, with incomes over $110,00 a year, now receive half of all the income each year. The top 1% with incomes over $400,000 a year received nearly 25% of all income in 2007. This 1% constitutes 1.5m earners out of 150m earners in America. One of the stats that the authors reveal is that, in the Great Recession, the bottom 99% of income earners in the US suffered a 7% fall in their incomes, the largest drop since the Great Depression. The other discovery is that it is the top 1% and even more, the top 0.1% of earners, who gained the most, compared with the top 5%. The inequalities are rising within the rich to create a super-rich elite. Whereas the top 1% took 9% of incomes in 1978 and the top 5% took the next 12% , to make 21% in all; by 2008, the top 1% took 21% while the top 5% took another 15% (making 36% in all). So the top 1% have reaped the biggest gains in the last 30 years. Also the top 0.1% took only 1% of incomes in 1978 but now take 6%!
The main reason for this higher concentration is the massive rises in the incomes going to the very top chief executives in the banks and big corporations. It’s the same story in the UK. The UK’s High Pay Commission found that bosses’ salaries rose by 63% since 2002, but total pay packages for top company executives had gone up by 700% since 2002. In contrast, pay levels for the average worker in Britain rose only 27% before inflation and taxes.
These extremes of inequality and the particularly fast rise in that inequality in the last 30 years is now beginning to worry the strategists of capital in an environment of depression in the mature capitalist economies. It is not that they think inequality causes crises (although some are beginning to argue that), it is because they fear a social backlash from the 99% towards the 1%. And how right that fear now appears to be, given the global campaign developing against the super-rich. As one City economist , Jeremy Grantham put it: “My worst fears about the potential loss of confidence in our leaders, institutions, and capitalism itself are being realized. We have been digging this hole for a long time. We really must be serious in our attempts to resuscitate the fortunes of the average worker. Wouldn’t it be better for us to decide deliberately and by ourselves that income distribution which creates the best balance of social justice and incentive to work? How about going back to the levels of income equality that existed under the Presidency of that notable Pinko, Dwight Eisenhower? And don’t think for a second that this more equal income distribution somehow interfered with economic growth: the 50s and 60s were the heyday of sustained U.S. economic gains.”
The rise of the super rich implies the expansion of the poor. In the UK, the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) said soaring inflation coupled with low pay rises means that household disposable income will fall by 2% this year, more than double last year’s fall of 0.8% and the biggest drop since the savage 1919 to 1921 post-First World War recession. In the current recession/depression, the ranks of America’s poor (as officially defined) swelled to nearly 1 in 6 people last year. The overall poverty rate climbed to 15.1%, or 46.2m, up from 14.3% in 2009. The US poverty rate from 2007-2010 has now risen faster than in any three-year period since the early 1980s recession. Measured by total numbers, the 46m now living in poverty is the largest on record. The poverty ratio is now as high as in 1993 and the highest since 1983. Americans without health coverage now number 50m people.