Following the Money

April 2, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the politics of wealth and taxes, the dominant emotion in the US seems to be righteous anger.  The Occupy movement looks at the 1% and thinks they are getting too much money and paying too little in taxes.  The Tea Partiers complain that the government is picking their pockets and giving too much to the poor, who are not paying enough in taxes. 
Here are two graphs that might be relevant.

First, of the total increase in income in the US in 2010, who got how much? 

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

This Piketty and Saez graph was included in an article by Steven Rattner at the New York Times website (here).  It’s a little misleading because that $80 apiece increase for the 99% was not evenly distributed.  I would imagine that in the lower 50% the increase was meager at best.

At the same time, have rising tides been lifting all boats?  That depends on which country your boat is floating in. 

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

The income of the median US earner hasn’t moved much in the last twenty years.  That includes the economically sunny 1990s.   In some other countries, everyone seems to be doing better.  (This graphic, found here, comes from a report nearly a year ago.  I discovered it today thanks to a link from Matt Yglesias at Slate.) 

I would guess that the anger over income and taxes would be less pronounced if incomes had been rising.  The signs from the 99% were often complained that they could not find jobs, at least not jobs that would allow them to make even a small dent in their student loans.  What rankles them is not just that incomes at the top are soaring but that incomes for the middle have become insufficient.  On the other side.  It’s even possible that Republicans, had their incomes been rising steadily, might not be so resentful about tax-funded safety-net programs.

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