There's this widespread idea that the rich today are no different from us. We no longer have the pseudo-aristocratic rentiers of Fitzgerald or Henry James, but hard-working (if perhaps overcompensated) superstars of the labor market. When a highbrow webzine does an "interview with a rich person," it turns out to be a successful graphic designer earning $140,000 a year.
Sorry, that is not a rich person.
The 1 percent cutoff for household income is around $350,000. The 0.1 percent, around $2 million. The 0.01 percent, around $10 million. Those are rich people, and they're not graphic designers, or even lawyers or bankers. They're owners.
From the IRS Statistics of Income for 2010:
|Wages and Salaries||Pensions, Social Security, UI||Interests, Dividends, Inheritance||Business Income||Capital Gains||Total Capital Income|
As we can see, for households at the very top of the distribution, income overwhelmingly comes from property ownership. Total property income at the far right, the sum of preceding three columns. (The numbers don't add to quite 100% because I've left out a few small, hard-to-classify categories like alimony and gambling winnings.) The top 0.01 percent's 15 percent of labor income is not much more than the same stratum got from wages and salaries in 1929. No doubt many of these people spend time at an office of some kind, but the idea of "the working rich" is a myth.
Here's the same breakdown across the income distribution. The X-axis is adjusted gross income.
So across a broad part of the income distribution, wages make up a stable 70-75 percent of income, with public and private social insurance providing most of the rest. Capital income catches up with labor income around $500,000, making the one percent line a good qualitative as well as quantitative cutoff. It's interesting to see how business income peaks in the $1 to $2 million range, the signature of the old middle class or petite bourgeoisie. And at the top, again, capital income is absolutely dominant.
It's an interesting question why this isn't more widely recognized. Mainstream discussions of rising inequality take it for granted that “those at the top were more likely to earn than inherit their riches," with the clear understanding that "earn" means a paycheck. Even very smart Marxists like Gerard Dumenil and Dominique Levy concede that "a large fraction of the income of the wealthiest segments of the population is made of wages," giving a figure of 48.8 percent for the wage share of the top 0.1 percent. Yet the IRS figures show that the wage share for this stratum is not nearly half, but less than a third. What gives?
I think at least some of the confusion is the fault of Piketty and Saez. Their income distribution work is state of the art, they've done as much as anyone to bring the concentration of income at the top into public discussion; I'd be a fool to criticize their work on the substance. They do, however, make a somewhat peculiar choice about presentation. In the headline numbers in much of their work, they give not the top 0.01, 0.1, 1, etc. percent by income, but rather the top percentiles by income excluding capital gains. [*] This is clearly stated in their papers but it is almost never noted, as far as I can tell, by people who cite them.
There are various good reasons, in principle, for distinguishing capital gains from other income. But in an era when capital gains are the largest single source of income at the top, defining top income fractiles excluding capital gains seriously distorts your picture of the very top. For instance, you may miss people like this guy: In both 2010 and 2011, the majority of Mitt Romney's income took the form of capital gains.
"They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn," or if you prefer, "Save your money -- same like yesterday."
[*] The fractiles are defined this way even when capital gains income is reported. You have to dig around a bit in their data to find the composition of income by raw income fractiles, equivalent to my table above.