Ultimately, the question is this: How much inequality is necessary? It is true that the nation grew quite fast as inequality soared over the last three decades. Since 1980, the country’s gross domestic product per person has increased about 69 percent, even as the share of income accruing to the richest 1 percent of the population jumped to 36 percent from 22 percent. But the economy grew even faster — 83 percent per capita — from 1951 to 1980, when inequality declined when measured as the share of national income going to the very top of the population.
One study concluded that each percentage-point increase in the share of national income channeled to the top 10 percent of Americans since 1960 led to an increase of 0.12 percentage points in the annual rate of economic growth — hardly an enormous boost. The cost for this tonic seems to be a drastic decline in Americans’ economic mobility. Since 1980, the weekly wage of the average worker on the factory floor has increased little more than 3 percent, after inflation.
The United States is the rich country with the most skewed income distribution. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average earnings of the richest 10 percent of Americans are 16 times those for the 10 percent at the bottom of the pile. That compares with a multiple of 8 in Britain and 5 in Sweden.
Not coincidentally, Americans are less economically mobile than people in other developed countries. There is a 42 percent chance that the son of an American man in the bottom fifth of the income distribution will be stuck in the same economic slot. The equivalent odds for a British man are 30 percent, and 25 percent for a Swede.
NONE of this even begins to account for the damage caused by the superstar dynamics that shape the pay of American bankers.