How Can The Wealthy Be So Greedy?

Crossposted from The Stars Hollow Gazette

It’s a topic I’ve addressed before-

How to feel poor on $500,000 a year

Mon Sep 20, 2010 at 06:46:14 AM EDT

In Which Mr. Deling Responds to Someone Who Might Be Professor Todd Henderson

J. Bradford DeLong, Department of Economics, U.C. Berkeley

September 18, 2010

Professor Henderson’s problem is that he thinks that he ought to be able to pay off student loans, contribute to retirement savings vehicles, build equity, drive new cars, live in a big expensive house, send his children to private school, and still have plenty of cash at the end of the month for the $200 restaurant meals, the $1000 a night resort hotel rooms, and the $75,000 automobiles. And even half a million dollars a year cannot (get) you all of that.

(W)hy does he think that that is the way things should be? … (H)ere is the dirty secret: Professor Henderson thinks that that is the way things should be because he knows people for whom that is the way it is.

Of the 100 people richer than he is, fully ten have more than four times his income. And he knows of one person with 20 times his income. He knows who the really rich are, and they have ten times his income: They have not $450,000 a year. They have $4.5 million a year. And, to him, they are in a different world.

And so he is sad. He and his wife deserve to be successful. And he knows people who are successful. But he is not one of them–widening income inequality over the past generation has excluded him from the rich who truly have money.

I’ll note that Mr. Deling has respectfully redacted the name of the offending asshole, but I’m free to shout it from the roof tops.

Professor Todd Henderson of the University of Chicago Law School!

So what has changed?  Things have gotten worse of course!

"Who rules America? Breaking down the top 1%"

by Gaius Publius, Americablog

on 8/29/2011 10:55:00 AM

(T)his article breaks down the top 1% of American wealth into strata, and talks about the differences. It’s a really instructive piece, and an easy read.

The Lower Half of the Top 1%

The 99th to 99.5th percentiles largely include physicians, attorneys, upper middle management, and small business people who have done well. Everyone’s tax situation is, of course, a little different. On earned income in this group, we can figure somewhere around 25% to 30% of total pre-tax income will go to Federal, State, and Social Security taxes, leaving them with around $250k to $300k post tax. This group makes extensive use of 401-k’s, SEP-IRA’s, Defined Benefit Plans, and other retirement vehicles, which defer taxes until distribution during retirement. Typical would be yearly contributions in the $50k to $100k range, leaving our elite working group with yearly cash flows of $175k to $250k after taxes, or about $15k to $20k per month.

Until recently, most studies just broke out the top 1% as a group. Data on net worth distributions within the top 1% indicate that one enters the top 0.5% with about $1.8M, the top 0.25% with $3.1M, the top 0.10% with $5.5M and the top 0.01% with $24.4M. Wealth distribution is highly skewed towards the top 0.01%, increasing the overall average for this group. The net worth for those in the lower half of the top 1% is usually achieved after decades of education, hard work, saving and investing as a professional or small business person. While an after-tax income of $175k to $250k and net worth in the $1.2M to $1.8M range may seem like a lot of money to most Americans, it doesn’t really buy freedom from financial worry or access to the true corridors of power and money. That doesn’t become frequent until we reach the top 0.1%.

(T)he people above, the “lower half of the top 1%”, still work for a living. I would put them at the top level of the “retainer class” – wealthy, but still servants.

In Roman times, these would be the very-well-off top-level administrators and professionals, many of them ex-Greek slaves, who service the real Masters (the emperor and wealthier senatorial families) and oversee the constant flow of peasant wealth upwards, from which they get a hand-me-down share.

For the author, the key American economic super-strata are:

  • 99.0%-99.5%  –  The lower half of the top 1%
  • 99.5%-99.9%  –  Most of the upper half of the top 1%
  • The top 0.1%  –  The Big Boyz (and Girlz, but very few of those)
  • The top 0.01%  –  Where most of the real wealth is concentrated

The first sub-group has a lot of retirement anxiety, as the article makes clear; and the second has some guilt. Guess where the power lies.

I like Gaius.  I like what he writes and I understand from TheMomCat who has met him that he’s a very nice guy.  He has another piece earlier that touches on the same subject-

$2 of every $3 in income growth from 2002-2007 went to the upper 1%

by Gaius Publius, Americablog

on 8/25/2011 08:21:00 PM

Not the upper 10%; the upper 1%. (2002 is the bottom of the tech crash; 2007 is just pre-the bank crash.)

Another bad stat – In 1967, 97% of prime age men with only HS diplomas were working. Today, the number is 76%. Stunning; the middle class (the real one, not the faux-middle class we see on TV) is collapsing hard from within.

All of this comes via Don Peck and his new Atlantic article, “Can the Middle Class Be Saved?“.

Peck makes several points that regular readers will be familiar with – in particular, the notion that the super-rich (Our Betters) have not only delinked their expenses from the U.S. economy – they’re started to delink their incomes from it as well.

The run-up in wealth inequality is the big story of this generation; in my view, a world-historical event that will have a world-historical outcome if we’re not careful. This wealth will be redistributed, one way or another, in this generation or a later one.

Fascinating stuff.  I encourage you to click the links.


  1. Longer answer: Because we let them be.

  2. I recently read about a new global theory of addiction. Apparently humans can and do become addicted to just about anything. The physiological mechanisms are apparently pretty much the same across the board, with obvious variations. Alcoholism, smoking, sex, money, collecting bottle tops, hoarding old newspapers. Whatever flips your addiction switch.

    And according to this theory, addictions are not “curable”, although they can sometimes be controlled. Sigh. I still haven’t been able to quit smoking.

    We could treat money addiction as an illness. Inform the rich that they’re sick and take away their “drug.” Send them to the Betty Ford clinic to help them get it under control–and help the rest of us at the same time. It’s certainly a destructive problem.

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