Extreme wealth inequality in the USA


By Leith van Onselen

The above YouTube video provides an easy-to-understand graphical presentation of wealth inequality across the United States, and is drawn from a variety of sources.

For me, the most shocking statistic to come out of the video is that the top 1% of Americans owns 40% of the nation’s wealth, whereas the bottom 80% own just 7% of total wealth. Unbelievable.

Unconventional Economist
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  1. It’s an eye popping video that highlights the failure of the US governments wealth re-distribution policies, or perhaps it highlights the lack of effective policies.

    • Disagree, it highlights how effective the US governments VERY DELIBERATE policies have been in redistribution of wealth to the corrupt oligarchs who own the so called ‘elected leaders’

        • drsmithyMEMBER

          Thanks to Bernanke and the bail outs, the 1% are laughing.

          The 1% were laughing long before that. America has been on this trajectory since the neo-liberals took over in the ’70s.

      • And that is why the rest of us should pay attention to where our own countries are headed in terms of inequality before we end up living either in or out of gated communities, wondering how we got there.

    • It’s the “treacle down” effect – nearly everything sticks to a few sets of hands at the top and everybody else races madly around underneath trying to catch the few drops that fall off.

    • name one economist that has ever endorsed “trickle down”, it doesnt exist only in the caricatures of the loony left and economic simpletons… welcome to that club

      • I would have thought that Art Laffer and Robert Barro would give the notion a ringing endorsement.

  2. Is this a clip from the documentary “Inequality for All” that just wowed Sundance?

    Interesting Ed Milliband in the UK gave a speech on similar lines a week ago – seems the idea that income growth rather than asset growth might be a better path is gaining traction.

    • You’re not kidding. Walked into a US pharmacy with a script for Ventolin, you know, the asthma inhaler. Price: 220USD

    • And people wonder why houses are generally cheaper in many areas of the US compared to Australia? Their median income is quite a bit lower than in Oz, and health insurance costs 10 times as much – and that’s not an exageration!

      • Why would that influence housing prices?

        Does that explain why we also pay more for cars? Song off iTunes? Software?

        I can’t see why someone would voluntarily pay more for a house, a manufactured item, just because healthcare is cheaper.

          • Yep, but I don’t tink that’s down to voluntary behaviour of wanting to pay more for our housing.

            Nor do I think because a savings can be made in healthcare, it will automatically be absorbed into housing.

            Nor do I think the desire to access the cost of our healthcare incurs a structural premium into our housing.

            The post above mine is inferring ‘see, cheaper healthcare… our high priced housing makes sense now!’

          • US – yes that is true; I lived in the US around 2000/2001, so know the cost differences well. Most / many things are cheaper, although this is changing somewhat nowadays with respect to consumer / electrical goods. However, the health care / health insurance one is a biggy in our favour. try $20k for a family private health insurance policy! I pay $2k a year for the same here in Oz.

            If you are lucky you get insurance from a blue chip employer. If you are not lucky, it’s a massive hit on your family income, and that’s providing you earn enough to even afford it, which huge swathes of Americans do not.

            To Rusty Penny: The reason this matters, is because if on average people earn less, and have to pay a huge amount more for an essential need like health insurance (which in the US you have to have if you can afford it), then on average people have less money to spend on other things like housing. The price of land / housing is driven primarily by supply / demand remember? No-one voluntarily pays more than they absolutely have to in order to get what they want, and can afford.

  3. Alex Heyworth

    The tragedy is that politicians of all stripes have no intention of doing anything serious about it. They are all either plutocrats themselves or in the pockets of the plutocrats.

  4. drsmithyMEMBER

    Would be interesting to see some of the same stats for Australia.

    My guess is things have gotten measurably worse over the last 15 years (certainly GINI numbers suggest that), and you can be sure this trend would accelerate with the Liberals back in charge (especially since they seem to take a lot of their cues from the US Republicans, sans the crazy gun stuff).

    • The one big step we’ve taken recently to reverse this trend — the lifting of the tax-free threshold from $6,000 to $18,000 — will most likely be reversed by the Abbott government, so he can deliver on his pledge to repeal the carbon tax.

    • See http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/Lookup/by%20Subject/1301.0~2012~Main%20Features~Household%20income,%20expenditure%20and%20wealth~193 and scroll to table 9.9 (at the bottom).

      “In 2009–10, the 20% of households with the lowest net worth accounted for only 1% of the net worth of all households, with an average net worth of $32,000 per household. The share of net worth increases with each higher net worth quintile, with 5% for the second quintile, 12% for the third quintile, 20% for the fourth quintile, while the wealthiest 20% of households in Australia accounted for 62% of total household net worth, with an average net worth of $2.2 million per household.”

  5. reusachtigeMEMBER

    The thing with America is that the 80% would never fight to take back a share held by the 1% because they are taught from a young age that if they try hard enough they too can join the 1%. Even though it rarely happens, it’s their dream.

    • reusachtigeMEMBER

      I do think though that with the rapidly changing racial mix in the US the dream of joining the 1% is seen as one that is really only ever attainable by the Anglo/Euro-background people so there may be some fighting down the track as the racial mix continues to change.

      • Alex Heyworth

        Many of the new people in the US (especially the illegal immigrants) are from backgrounds so poor that even a minimum wage job in the US is heaven by comparison. They work hard and save hard for a better future for their children. It doesn’t always happen, of course (the children often end up in gangs, involved with drugs etc), but they still share the dream. Their sights are set quite a bit lower than the 1%.

        • It would also be interesting to see the wealth distribution for other nations. I doubt very much that the USA is all that much of an outlier.

          Equality among a nation’s citizens actually correlates very closely to the monoculturalism of that nation. If Sweden had the USA’s polyglot people instead of a whole lot of Swedes, it would have high inequality. And Japan has high equality along with quite harsh “welfare” provisions.

          In fact “welfare” provision is irrelevant to “equality”. No nation is ever going to be made “more equal” by making its welfare more lavish. If the welfare ever was sufficiently lavish to improve the station in life of enough people to increase “equality”, then there would be no incentive for a large number of people to work at all, and the system will collapse.

          The effect is bad enough in the UK already; because house prices are so high, a welfare beneficiary who gets a job and loses their free public housing, effectively gets hit with a marginal tax of well over 100%. Southern USA’s low cost housing, and opportunity for mobility out of absolute poverty, deserves some credit.

          • monoculturalism has very little to do with equality.

            e.g. Sweden has higher percentage of foreign born people than USA.

            Some other countries in Europe (Belgium, Switzerland) with high equality are among the most culturally diverse in the world. And some of the most monocultural like Portugal or Israel have high inequality.

            The opposite examples like Iceland and Slovenia are also saying that some other thing influence equality much more than culture and ethnicity.

          • Southern USA with low cost housing, is prime example of land with NO opportunity for mobility out of absolute poverty.

            These states have highest inequality with huge percentage of population living in absolute poverty without even hope for ending poverty.

            Actually there is large correlation between low housing and inequality. Places with very low house prices are very often places with the highest inequality.


          • drsmithyMEMBER

            In fact “welfare” provision is irrelevant to “equality”. No nation is ever going to be made “more equal” by making its welfare more lavish. If the welfare ever was sufficiently lavish to improve the station in life of enough people to increase “equality”, then there would be no incentive for a large number of people to work at all, and the system will collapse.

            This is a common refrain from the far right, yet as far as I know there is zero evidence to support it.

          • Raveswei, of course counties in the USA with high house prices have high “equality”. Low income earners are “priced out”.

            The counties with low house prices have “high inequality” because there happen to be plenty of poor people able to afford to live there, as well as upwardly mobile people who have become wealthier.

            I have seldom heard such irrational nonsense as what you are talking. High house prices are good for equality and social mobility……!!!!!!! I really wonder about your vested interests, pal.

            I find it very difficult to believe that Sweden has more foreign-born people right now than the USA. But even if this is true, there is no way Sweden has anywhere near the polyglot collection of races and cultures (second and third generation etc) that the USA has.

            There are indeed “monocultures” that tend to inequality in their own right eg in Saudi Arabia. And there are “multicultural” societies that have far less people of the failed cultures actually clinging to their culture and dragging the nation’s results down. A lot depends on immigration policy and assimilation rates.

            Generally a nation with waves of high-achiever immigrants has done well. There are, however, obvious examples of open-ended immigration and multiculturalism that has dragged nations down. Sweden is not being helped in the long term by this, for example.

          • DrSmithy:

            “….This is a common refrain from the far right, yet as far as I know there is zero evidence to support it….”

            It was tried in NZ in the 1970’s and rapidly abandoned due to its utter fiscal unsustainability.

            Similar policies had been fiscally sustainable in Sweden in the 1960’s because of their near-monoculture that was very much dedicated to personal responsibility, hence there was not a flood of people milking the lavish new welfare provisions. However the rot set in eventually after a few decades and Sweden has had to reform the system to some extent, and will have to do so going forward.

    • Also, the (so called) middle class believe they have more in common with the aristocracy / ruling class/ 1%’ers, than they do with people that have very little money and assets.

      I know I’m drawing a long bow with this.

      Something I’ve seen here in Australia too. Huge (barely sustainable) mortgage, expensive car being paid off, between few to 6 credits cards being utilised, and believing or behaving like they have more in common with the Packer’s, Rinehart’s, Murdoch’s,… etc, than someone in a suburd they don’t desire.

      Who would rebel with that belief?

      • This is the reason that the entire property ponzi hasn’t collapsed yet. Australians are so worried about keeping up with the Jones’s the idea of loosing their house and their extravagant lifestyles is unthinkable.

        Until there is a serious shock credit cards, personal loans and loans from mates will continue to prop up these people.

        Why would these people rebel or even talk bad about the system that allegedly netted them 2 investment properties and 2 new cars in the driveway every 3 years?

        • Human psychology is one of the strongest drivers of all destructive events including bubbles and ponzi schemes.

          People not wishing to change an unfair system in which most of people are unhappy and poor but rather wishing to change their own position inside the unfair system is the sole reason why western countries are going backwards (economically, culturally, politically, …).

          People now think is ethically fine to get rich by exploiting others and without any hard work, extra ability of knowledge (now this is more case in very old feudal “landlord” way than in Marxist way of production).

          Like so many times in past we are still running in the same creation-destruction loop. All the technological improvements did nothing to prevent injustice. In fact, these technological advancements just made creation-destruction more extreme.

    • Yes that something I never understood from the US, the capacity of a large part of the population to vote against their own interest.Seeing poor rednecks (mostly shouth) on welfare or retire with medicare voting republicans I unbelievable.

      They are so at the right of the spectrum it s crazy, especially for a French (France’s right wing would be a the left of Labour here) who supports Green 😉

      • But something is working out well for the “redneck” regions:


        I strongly argue that the mobility of people out of absolute poverty is far higher in these more free-market regions. I also strongly argue that there is far less successful “rent seeking”. It is obvious that far less money has ever been made by Wall Street on mortgage-backed-security horse trading, from the mortgage markets where there is something close to a free market in housing supply.

        • “I strongly argue that the mobility of people out of absolute poverty is far higher in these more free-market regions.”

          You must be kidding. Or you never visited any of these places.

          • He hasn’t, obviously. He also doesn’t know (or won’t admit) that the USA has the lowest level of social mobility in the developed world.

            Also amusing: he’s quoting the Manhattan Institute with that link. Take a look at who funds them, then tell me with a straight face that they’re a reliable source of analysis.

          • You guys are idiots. People are leaving the coastal States in droves to take up the opportunity that the South represents. Literally millions per decade. The socially immobile underclass has not grown in the South. Unemployment has not grown. So somehow, these migrants must be counterbalanced with “moving on up” in society.

            Of course there will always be a visible “poor” class under these circumstances. They have been “priced out” of the areas where there are fewer of them. Pity poor people in the UK that have no similarly favourable regions to migrate TO.

            Check out:


            Luton, the town where the rats don’t even bother to hide anymore



            Leaving Sparrows Point for jobs in other states

            Steelworkers exit Md. for manufacturing opportunities in Texas and elsewhere.

            I also find it very funny how people with a phobia for anything funded by libertarian millionaires, are absolute suckers for stuff funded by Statist, crony capitalist billionaires like George Soros and Ted Turner. Check out “The New Leviathan” by David Horowitz.

      • Dam, well put and I agree it is very difficult to understand the voter behaviour of the US citizens. Clever politics and avoiding teaching critical thinking? An essential part of their national education plan perhaps..
        I would not be surprised if news of civil unrest arose from the US though, or China or austerity fatigued Europe for that matter.

    • “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. – John Steinbeck

      • Except that socialism /did/ take root in America in the 1920s and 1930s, and progressive ideals had a major influence on domestic and foreign policy right up until McCarthy.

    • “they are taught from a young age that if they try hard enough they too can join the 1%.”

      No only that but people are brainwashed that the earnings of the 1% and their wealth is absolutely fare, because of the so called “free market”, which the greatest illusions of all.

      Ideology of the worst kind.

      • It is the rent-seeking 1% that is the result of “ideology of the worst kind”. Honest “Main street” producers deserve everything they earn.

  6. The interesting thing is that the public’s perception is so wrong yet they believe that the system works for them.

    This documentary which is not easy to view online outside the US explains how some key influencers keep the policy agenda on the side of the 1%. Extreme inequality can be yours if you work for it. Work has nothing to do with it.


    The Tea party and Paul Ryan are not grass roots voices for less government but billionaire’s puppets.

      • General Disarray

        That will always be the case when cashed up lobby groups have so much influence. It’s happening here as well, we’re just further behind the curve.

    • The problem that no-one is so far identifying, is the difference between “main street” and “the rent seeking class”. The difference between “the free market” and “crony capitalism”.

      Henry George said before 1900, that it was a tragedy that “the workers” were being turned militant against their employers, when their worst enemy, and the enemy of their employers, was the financiers and land owning oligarchies.

      It is absolutely a tragedy that the finance sector in the USA has gone from making 10% of the profits in the economy, to nearly 50% of them. It is also a tragedy that so much political spite from the Left is targeted at the employers, producers, industrialists, and so on, when in fact the problem lies elsewhere.

      I don’t understand why anyone would say that the Tea Party and Paul Ryan have anything to do with apologism for billionaires that is part of the status quo problem. They are challenging the status quo, especially the unhealthy connections between the Federal Reserve system and Wall St, and are unpopular with the Republican establishment.

      Barack Obama is not the only famous Democrat to have raised far more money from super wealth backers, than their Republican opponents. It is a myth that super wealthy people mostly support “free market” politics. The opposite is true. The biggest money of all is not being made by the “producers”, it is being made by the “parasites” in finance and land ownership, and they love supporting the politics that makes the producers the scapegoats.

      • PhilBest, apart from things remaining the same or becoming more extreme (to whatever degree) to what they currently are, do you think anything will come from this? (Referring to your post-response).

        I’m seeing what Socrates said all those years ago (paraphrasing),

        In a democracy is it the wise (aristocracy), or the majority that rule?”. He asked rhetorically.

        • I don’t think it is the “wise” that “rule”, I think it is the “fiendishly clever” (and self-interested). Baffle the masses with plausible B.S. that makes them play into your hands.

          There is an old Chinese proverb, “in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”. This is wrong too. Actually, no-one believes the one-eyed man.

          I am pessimistic about where all this will end. I do not believe, as some of these mad conspiracy theorists (“The Illuminati” etc) do, that there is a grand plot to take over the world. I just see it as an inevitable consequence of self-interest, immorality, and the fiendishly clever minority acting accordingly. I don’t think these people have a dog’s show of actually “taking over the world”; they might, however, collapse the entire global economy in their greed.

      • Finance as an industry what a funny concept
        Finance is a service. Yet a service which, at the moment, demands more money than their clients can possibly afford. This fact alone would kill most service providers however the USA is fortunate in that the powers that be, consider finance “too big to fail”, so the costs of their folly are born by the productive sector, logic definitely took a holiday when this system was invented!

        • Prisoner’s dilemma.

          Remember, you overcome the adverse consequences of game theory by ensuring death as the competitors as the guaranteed outcome.

          Otherwise, those that control money control the rules. They capture the rule making process and abrogate all responsibility.

          As as I keep mentioning, the like of the BCA, as a representative of the productive sector should see bubbles as an oncoming impairment, not an opportunity to gouge customers whose euphoria means they’ll accept these high prices.

          But they are all driven by self interest, thus all rational, and predictable outcomes.

          Regulation is all about taking away self interest fromt eh decisin making process, because self interest can’t be relied upon to make enduring, sustainable decisions.

        • Agree, China-Bob and Rusty Penny.

          “…..you overcome the adverse consequences of game theory by ensuring death as the competitors as the guaranteed outcome…..”

          Brilliant insight, thanks. I have often likened the whole mortgage and inflated land prices thing as like a hostage stand-off where the terrorists are being constantly supplied more hostages so as to appease them and reduce the chances that the ones they already have will get killed. They actually are holding out for impossible demands anyway, and everyone will die when there are no more non-hostages left to supply them.

  7. General Disarray

    Just remember when you hear the right complain about class warfare from the left it’s just a case of psychological projection.

  8. http://www.nzweek.com/world/former-greek-minister-sentenced-to-8-years-in-jail-for-tax-dodging-52396/

    Can you imagine if this type of justice was served in the US… they would need to build more prisons. Romney and his “offshore” trusts probably avoided millions in tax deductions. Pretty much all of those in senate/congress have similar setups to avoid paying the tax that their laws are supposed to enforce… just another case of “do as I say and not as I do”

    Its becoming more blatantly obvious now that the whole Repub/Dem split is nothing more than an illusion to give people the idea of choice.

    Take a look at donations to both sides by the same companies and you can see that by hedging their bets Wall St and big oil/pharma/auto etc can all have their way all for just a few million in backhanders.

    the top 1% have just accumulated too much wealth and power and todays policies of free money just allow those with access to it to be able to rape the remaining 99% without any worry that they will ever be prosecuted.

    i live in the hope that this will at some point come crashing down but I think its become so skewed that without revolution there will be no change

  9. Globalisation seems to be benefiting only the elite 1% and developing countries.

    I can now understand how the wealth gap widens. My work becoming easier to be outsourced overseas. Just a matter of time before reduction in salary or loss of job.

    • globalisation only benefits top 1%

      developing countries’ benefits are only temporary, as they were after all the previous rounds of globalisation (colonial era, mid 19 century, early 20 century)

      • Going by the state of the UK, it looks like the Imperialists benefits were only temporary too. Were Australia’s and Canada’s benefits only temporary?

        I recommend “Third World Poverty and Western Guilt” by Peter Bauer. And “Replenishing the Earth” by James Belich.

    • We have all been blind to what business globalisation is doing to us until now -or most of us anyway. Think about it -large enterprices or franchises, now owning food wholesale producers and suppliers, medical centres etc in many countries, these businesses registered in tax havens with foreign owners. It used to be the case that small and medium sized local enterprices florished and paid tax locally and built wealth locally. Shall we go back a few steps?

      Like I’ve said many a time before. The well-off ones or “the fortunate” will hate the society they live in once the stable structures have been destroyed. We all benefit from public infrastructure, healthcare, well educated citizenship capable of giving their best to the country, and even rules and regulations as long as rules do not stifle small business from starting up.
      Extremes of all sorts are dangerous.

  10. Showed this video to my 13 yr old son (off sick from school). He summed it up nicely, ‘America sucks’.

  11. The bottom 90% are the teachers, guards, police, firefighters, soldiers, janitors, gardeners, tradesmen etc etc etc. The very people that the top 1% rely on to facilitate their lifestyles…..the top 1% should be very very scared in their gated communities.

    • The top 1% aren’t merely in gated communities. They can disappear to the Cayman Islands or somewhere anytime they want to, via helicopter and Lear Jet. It is local industrialists and employers and main street “producers” who might live in gated communities, and who are not in the 1% anyway, cannot flee, and do not deserve to be targeted.

  12. For a more comprehensive view, it is worthwhile reading “The Price of Inequality”, by Joe Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate (for Economics). It provides all the necessary facts and figures to support a (depressing) argument. I enjoyed this interview with him: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/national-affairs/the-price-of-inequality-interview-with-joseph-e-stiglitz-20120625.

    RSA have also started addressing inequality in their forums: http://comment.rsablogs.org.uk/2013/02/19/inequality-crisis/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+RSAcomment+%28RSA+Comment%29

      • I am surprised that the liberal Krugman said:

        “…..So am I saying that you can have full employment based on purchases of yachts, luxury cars, and the services of personal trainers and celebrity chefs? Well, yes. You don’t have to like it, but economics is not a morality play, and I’ve yet to see a macroeconomic argument about why it isn’t possible…..”

        My only problem with that, is that so much of the spending by rent-seekers, is on further rent-seeking activity. The people servicing the luxury cars and everyone else to whom the wealth is trickling down, are merely handing a lot of their income straight back to the 1% via mortgage payments and rents. It doesn’t matter how much income increase they get if all the slack is always taken up by rising RE prices. This is why I pick distortions to RE markets (by way of controls on “supply”) as one of the best-kept rent-seeking secrets of the fiendishly clever top 1%.

        Krugman actually should know this. He is a land economist, and one with some good insights. He picked the difference between “flatlands” and “the zoned zone” back in about 2004. I am very disappointed in him, that he has not pressed the point. Perhaps “the beautiful people” would be cross with him…..

  13. ceteris paribus

    This video is Tones’ wet dream. “Give back that $500 superannuation discount, you destitute bastard”.

  14. I remember Sam Newman once made the comment that most people walk around with their nuckles dragging on the ground.
    That video reiterates this in spades.
    Inequality, driven by control over democratic society, will in the end lead to the 1% living in gated communities, assuming that is, society wakes up at some stage.
    How much more can the 1% take, before this blows?

  15. That American aristocracy will have to manage this very well – has there ever been a nation as privately armed to the teeth?

    This gap between the perception and the reality of people is the most amazing thing.

  16. And those in that 1% have the nice luxury of being able to pay an astroturfer like your good self (who as we all know is a paid employee of the mining oligarchs) to obfuscate the discussion.

    Gina is a walking example of why wealth based taxes – like inheritance taxes should be on the table for discussion.

  17. drsmithyMEMBER

    That American aristocracy will have to manage this very well – has there ever been a nation as privately armed to the teeth?

    Relative to the force the US Government can bring to the table, I’d say pretty much any civilian nation in history has been at least as well armed, if not more so.

    “Assault rifles” aren’t much use against tanks and drones. I’d argue there was probably a closer comparison of force when farmers with scythes were facing off against soldiers with swords.

  18. 1. The 1%’s biggest advantage is that they were established decades ago and in a lot of cases actually over a century ago. Millionaires, billionaires of today, most likely had a family heritage with “well-off” background in the 1800s, early 1900s.
    The “rich or wealthy” families in the 1800s and early 1900s are the wealthiest families todays.
    Just imagine decades, centuries of accumulating real estate, businesses, capital gains which were invested etc. Also imagine well off families/people back then investing money on new businesses then, that are multi-billion dollar corporations today.
    This is common in America, Europe etc.

    The biggest issue with the “working class” and “below poverty line” people, or 99% (closer to 80% if you remove millionaires) Is that they have been educated and raised that 1 day they CAN be in that 1% or atleast be millionaires. When only way to do that is to either marry into the 1% or the millionaire families.
    The 1% and millionaires are embedded in the system/businesses of today enough, to consider them the “beneficiary” of the 80%’s debt and debt accumulation.
    Welcome to capitalism, which I think has a time limit before $hit literally hits the fan.
    Sadly, a radical and unpopular new political party with a strong focus on wealth distribution and “capped” capitalism policies that initiate the change…. But at this time that party doesn’t exist.