iniquity, inequality, parity, disparity, Income In...
Who exactly are the 1%?
The very rich in America increasingly work in finance, marry each other and care passionately about politics
MITT ROMNEY is not the first multi-millionaire to seek the presidency, nor the richest. Ross Perot, the record-holder, spent some of his billions earned from computer data on losing bids in 1992 and 1996. Since then men who owe their or their family’s fortunes to oil, sport, publishing, trial law, ketchup, beer and bestselling autobiographies have followed.
But Mr Romney, who earned his $200m or so as a private-equity executive buying and selling companies, is the first candidate from the world of high-octane finance. As such, he illustrates the changing complexion of America’s rich. The wealthiest 1% of Americans not only get more of the pie (see chart); they are increasingly creatures of finance.
The average household income of the 1% was $1.2m in 2008, according to federal tax data. The ultra-rich skew that average upwards: admission to the 1% began at $380,000 in 2008. The Congressional Budget Office puts the cut-off lower, at $347,000 in 2007, or $252,000 after subtracting federal taxes and adding back transfers. Measured by net worth, rather than income, the top 1% started at $6.9m in 2009, according to the Federal Reserve, down 23% from 2007.
The richest 1% earn roughly half their income from wages and salaries, a quarter from self-employment and business income, and the remainder from interest, dividends, capital gains and rent. According to an analysis of tax returns by Jon Bakija of Williams College and two others, 16% of the top 1% were in medical professions and 8% were lawyers: shares that have changed little between 1979 and 2005, the latest year the authors examined (see chart). The most striking shift has been the growth of financial occupations, from just under 8% of the wealthy in 1979 to 13.9% in 2005. Their representation within the top 0.1% is even more pronounced: 18%, up from 11% in 1979.
Steve Kaplan of the University of Chicago thinks finance explains much of the rise in inequality. Updating a series developed by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, Mr Kaplan notes that the share of income going to the 1% reached an 80-year high of 23.5% in 2007, only to sink to 17.6% in 2009 as the financial markets deflated (see chart). The trend is even more pronounced for the top 0.1%, whose share of total income rose to 12.3% in 2007 but sank to a still disproportionate 8.1% in 2009.
Mr Kaplan and Joshua Rauh of Northwestern University note that investment bankers, corporate lawyers, hedge-fund and private-equity managers have displaced corporate executives at the top of the income ladder. In 2009 the richest 25 hedge-fund investors earned more than $25 billion, roughly six times as much as all the chief executives of companies in the S&P 500 stock index combined.
Although the 1% have been gaining share in most countries, a recent OECD report shows that the trend began sooner, and has gone further, in America. Some scholars, noting that inequality has risen more in English-speaking countries, think social and political values may play a role: in mainland Europe and Japan, corporate governance, tax laws and unionisation have tended to lessen income disparities. But the relatively large role of the financial sector in English-speaking countries could also be a factor: even more of the top 1% work in finance in Britain than in America.
Membership in America’s 1% is relatively stable; three-quarters of the households in the percentile one year will still be there the next. Although the proportion shrinks over time, one study found that the vast majority of the top 1% were still in the richest 10% a decade later. Kinship plays a big part: rich parents tend to produce rich kids. High levels of educational attainment and stable families help in this. According to Gallup, 72% of the 1% have a college degree, and half have a postgraduate degree; those are two to three times the proportion of the other 99%. The 1% are more likely to be married and to have children.
The rich also increasingly marry people like themselves. Mr Bakija and his co-authors found that between 1979 and 2005, the share of spouses of the 1% who had blue-collar or “miscellaneous” service-sector backgrounds declined slightly, from 7.9% to 6.4%. The share of spouses who worked in finance, property and law rose from 3.5% to 8.8%.
Politically, Gallup polls find that the 1% are more likely than the 99% to identify themselves as Republicans (33% to 28%) and less likely to be Democrats (26% to 33%). A survey of 104 wealthy families in the Chicago area, led by Benjamin Page of Northwestern University, found the budget deficit was their leading worry, followed by unemployment; for the broader population, the reverse is true. Still the rich, like most voters, have eclectic views, often supporting liberal and conservative positions simultaneously. For example, Keith Whitaker, who advises wealthy families on behalf of Wells Fargo, says many of them sympathise with the Occupy Wall Street movement. A lot of them became rich by building businesses and consider Wall Street “the place where businesses are taken apart and run by someone else”.
Bob Perkowitz embodies these contradictions. A rich entrepreneur, he now devotes much of his time to a non-profit environmental outfit. He is a lifelong Republican who objects to George Bush junior’s tax cuts for the wealthy, and backed Barack Obama in 2008. Having restructured companies himself, he has no trouble with Mr Romney’s private-equity work but agrees with Occupy Wall Street that corporations have too much power.
Until recently he split his time between conservative Charlotte, North Carolina, and liberal Washington, DC. His wife, Lisa Renstrom, used to manage hotels inherited from her father, a prosperous Republican businessman. Now she campaigns on climate change and backs Wealth for the Common Good, a group of rich people who back Occupy Wall Street. Her father used to give his occupation as “capitalist”. “I grew up believing that [capitalists] were making the world a better place,” she says. “The capitalism we have has left us with degraded infrastructure, threats to our health, and global warming.”
Most of the 1% prefer not to talk about their good fortune. As the New York Times recently observed in an article on the 1%, “Some envisioned waking up to protesters on the lawn; others feared audits by the IRS or other punitive government action.”
But Mr Perkowitz and Ms Renstrom are utterly typical of the 1% in that they are far more politically engaged than the average 99-percenters. Nearly all the rich people surveyed by Northwestern vote, 68% make campaign contributions, nearly half had contacted a member of Congress and a fifth had solicited contributions on behalf of a candidate. A good chunk of those calls were meant to help their businesses. But many were motivated by the common good, defined in as many different ways as the sources of their wealth.