January 28, 2020

Can the One Percent Be Absolved?

“Over a decade ago, economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez helped launch the problem of “the top one percent” into the political mainstream, as shorthand for the idea that the very rich were sucking up most of the fruits of economic growth. Their original papers breaking down the stunning scale of American inequality were picked up by Occupy Wall Street in 2011, which made “we are the 99 percent” one of their signature chants.

This has unsurprisingly inspired a cottage industry of one-percenter apologia. The very rich themselves, along with the think tanks and foundations they fund, have made quibbling with Piketty and Saez practically an entire academic discipline. Recently, The New York Times’ David Brooks tried to scapegoat the top 20 percent, while the American Enterprise Institute’s Lyman Stone pinned the blame on the entire Baby Boom generation. Neither are convincing.

Brooks asserts that “the big divide in America is not between the top 1 percent and the bottom 99. It’s between the top 20 percent and the rest.” He lambastes the “highly educated Americans who are pulling away from everybody else and who have built zoning restrictions and meritocratic barriers to make sure outsiders can’t catch up.””

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