Issues of economic inequality are a part of the public discussion in a way they haven’t been for a long time, driven both by economists such as Thomas Piketty and people’s own experiences since the 2007-09 global financial panic. Americans have few doubts that inequality has grown: In a Pew Research Center survey from January, about two-thirds of respondents (65%) said the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased over the past decade, versus just 8% who said it’s decreased according to the latest Pew study.
Those willing to discuss inequality generally focused on the gap between the poor or the working class and the merely well-off, not the truly rich—on college graduates whose wage gains outpaced those of less-educated workers, or on the comparative good fortune of the top fifth of the population compared with the bottom four fifths, not on the rapidly rising incomes of executives and bankers.
It therefore came as a revelation when the now famous Thomas Piketty and his colleagues showed that incomes of the now famous “one percent,” and of even narrower groups, are actually the big story in rising inequality. And this discovery came with a second revelation: talk of a second Gilded Age, which might have seemed like hyperbole, was nothing of the kind. In America in particular the share of national income going to the top one percent is mindblowing.