When we talk about income inequality in America, we are really talking about two distinct problems. The first is runaway incomes at the top of the earnings scale. The second is widespread income stagnation. Economists, policy-makers and the media typically treat the problems as one. In fact, the two problems require two different solutions.
The financialization of the economy is a major cause of the soaring incomes at the top. Financial companies account for about twice the proportion of GDP as they did thirty years ago, and up to 40 percent of corporate profits. And they pay their people ridiculously well—often two-thirds of their profits. What other industry does that? In 2006, before the markets began to totter, at least fifty people at Goldman Sachs made $20 million or more. Somewhat less prosperous Merrill Lynch paid $500 million to 100 people that year, an average of $5 million each. But the true rub was when Wall Street paid $145 billion in 2009, a near record, when the rest of America was mired in the worst recession since the 1930s and one out of six Americans couldn’t find a full-time job.
Financialization also made the CEOs of industrial and services companies, and their cadre of executive subordinates, far richer than ever before. The ratio of CEO pay to that of the average worker soared. With giant stock options, a historically new phenomenon, CEOs’ loyalty was now to the financial community, not to the machine tools, retailing or light bulbs that are their business—or to their employees. The surge of incomes to the top was supplemented by a natural tendency in a mass-market economy for "celebrities"—athletes, movie stars, bestselling writers—to earn outsize incomes. It is also likely that high incomes at financial firms forced companies to pay more competitive salaries to lawyers, accountants and other business-related professionals as well. Thus, the top 1 percent of families made 23.5 percent of all income in 2007, including capital gains, compared with less than 10 percent in the early 1970s. It hadn’t risen nearly to that level since 1928.
Others in the top 20 percent also made more than the rest of America. But without that surge, the incomes of the top 20 percent of Americans would not have risen so much faster than the rest. In sum, the top fifth of families increased their share of total income from 41.1 percent in 1973 to 47.3 percent in 2007. The bottom 80 percent lost share.
To put a finer point on income stagnation, we should look at how wages have fared for the typical worker. At the New School, Nikolaos Papanikolaou and I found that the median wage for a high school–educated man working full-time today is, adjusted for inflation, roughly the same as it was in 1969. We found that even for those with college degrees, incomes stagnated for periods of twenty and thirty years at a time and are today only modestly higher than in 1969.