Guest Post: Made In U.S.A.: Wealth Inequality

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh Smith from Of Two Minds

Made in U.S.A.: Wealth Inequality

Here's the Great Game: mask the nation's rising wealth inequality with Central State spending that keeps the debt-serfs passive--all funded by debt, of course.

While we may not make that much stuff in America any more, we can say that the nation's gigantic wealth inequality is totally Made in the U.S.A. Before we examine the data in some charts, I want to stipulate that great wealth in and of itself does not make a person an "enemy of the people" or threat to democracy. I confess to having generally lumped the top 1% of wealth holders into one category, something I have decided to stop doing, as this misses two critically important distinctions:

1. Not all wealth is created equally. Compare Steve Jobs, who is a billionaire for developing and selling "insanely great" mass-market technologies that people willingly buy because it enhances their lives, with a person who made his $1 billion by insider trading or misrepresenting the risk of his company's stock (basically the same thing). (If you need a hint here, think "Countrywide" or "Enron.")

Clearly, there is a distinction between those two fortunes: one created value, employment for thousands of people, and tremendous technological leverage for millions of ordinary people. The other enriched one crooked insider via trickery and deception.

2. Wealth destroys democracy and free markets when it buys the machinery of governance. Larry Ellison has made billions by developing and selling databases and business services. To the best of my knowledge, he spends his wealth on personal hobbies such as large homes and racing yachts. His lobbying efforts appear to be confined to yachting and the possible purchase of sports franchises. In other words, the political influence of his billions is localized and benign in terms of Federal policy decisions.

Compare that to the millions spent by the "too big to fail" banking industry to buy Congressional approval of their cartel's grip on the nation's throat: Buying Off Washington To Kill Financial "Reform".

Much of the debate about wealth inequality focuses on whether the super-wealthy are "paying their fair share" of the nation's taxes. If we refer to point 2 above, we see that if the super-wealthy are allowed to buy the machinery of governance, then they will never allow themselves to be taxed like regular tax donkeys.

In that sense, the debate over tax rates is pointless, because as long as the super-wealthy own the levers of Federal governance and regulation, then they will buy exclusions, loopholes, rebates, subsidies etc. which relieve them of whatever official tax rates have been passed for public consumption/propaganda purposes.

Let's take a look at wealth in America.

In Who Rules America?, Sociologist G. William Domhoff draws an important distinction between the net worth held by households in "marketable assets" such as homes and vehicles and "financial wealth." Homes and other tangible assets are, in Domhoff's words, "not as readily converted into cash and are more valuable to their owners for use purposes than they are for resale."

Financial wealth such as stocks, bonds and other securities are liquid and therefore easily converted to cash; these assets are what Domhoff describes as "non-home wealth" on his website Wealth, Income, and Power.

As of 2007, the bottom 80% of American households held a mere 7% of these financial assets, while the top 1% held 42.7%, the top 5% holds 72% and the top 10% held fully 83%.

According to the Fed flow of funds data, total assets of households and non-profits (a small slice of the pie) are $71.9 trillion, liabilities are $13.9 trillion and net worth--everything from jet skis to homes to stocks to bonds--is $58 trillion.

Here is a snapshot of total assets by category:

Pension funds and "other assets" include Treasury and corporate bonds, favored holdings of pension funds and the wealthy due to their relative safety and guaranteed yield.

Here is a snapshot of stock ownership:

No surprise there: the top 1% owns roughly 40% of all stocks, and the top 10% own 81%.

Wealth comes from earned and unearned (rent, dividends, etc.) income and capital appreciation, so it's no surprise that the income of the wealthiest segment has also far outpaced the lower 95%:

Meanwhile, the ratio of earned income to GDP is plummeting, which suggests that less of the national income is going to wages and salaries:

Thus it's no surprise that the median income has actually declined during the past decade of bogus debt-based "prosperity":

Here's a snapshot of just how debt-based that phony "prosperity" was:

Private borrowing declined as the home equity extraction ATM was closed, but the Federal government helpfully picked up the slack, borrowing and spending roughly $2 trillion a year so that total debt kept right on rising:

You have to wonder how much of our national wealth is the result of private consumption being transferred to the Federal ledger:

Put these charts together and you get the outlines of the Great Game: to keep the debt-serfs from rebelling, the Financial Elites have OK'd the funding of private spending by Federal debt. The Federal Reserve is a key player in the Game, of course, and its "job" is to suppress interest rates so the true costs of this skyrocketing Federal debt are masked, at least for awhile.

Beneath the happy surface of Federal transfers and spending funded by debt, earned incomes for the bottom 95% are falling and wealth is accumulating in the top 1%. The Federal Reserve's project of goosing stocks and bonds has greatly enriched the holders of those assets, while doing essentially nothing for the bottom 90% except increasing their government's debt load.

It's painfully obvious that the Federal government and the Fed are the handmaidens of the politically powerful Financial Elites. Why spend your own money on bribes, bread and circuses when you can arrange for the Central State to borrow the money? Why, indeed. "Austerity" is of course a modest reduction in the amount of money borrowed and spread around to keep the masses safely passive, but a few trillion trimmed here and there over a decade won't change the Great Game.

Frequent contributor B.C. summarized this reality quite cogently:

The top 1% of US households receive nearly as much income each year as the value of Germany's GDP; and they receive more income than all other nations' GDP (individually, not cumulatively) but the GDPs of Japan, China, and the US.

The financial wealth of the top 1% exceeds the value of the entire GDP of the EU (the world's largest GDP in aggregate).

Moreover, the top 1% could lose 90% of their financial wealth and still collectively have more wealth than all but each of the world's top eight GDPs (US, China, Japan, Germany, France, UK, Brazil, and Italy).

When one hears that wealth and income inequality is extreme in the US, I suspect many do not realize just how extreme it really is.

Peak Oil (falling net energy and available net exports), government "austerity", and the effects of population overshoot imply that wealth and income concentration will become even more extreme, affecting what remains of the professional middle class, who are largely dependent upon the ongoing growth of debt-money and government borrowing and spending.

Thank you, B.C. In other words, the top 15% better keep their eyes on the referee, if you know what I mean.

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Bob Sacamano's picture

So it begs the question, what is the "correct" distribution of wealth and who gets to decide how to re-distribute it?

mayhem_korner's picture

Bingo!  (But you actually asked two questions).

Here's a third: beyond being able to sustain one's self, why does wealth matter?

homegr0wn's picture

If wealth doesn't matter beyond sustaining one's self, then the excess can be given to the government in the form of taxes? I see what you're trying to say but its a horrible argument.

mayhem_korner's picture

You missed by a mile. My point is why should someone else care if I have a lot of money?

homegr0wn's picture

You understand saying "why does wealth matter beyond sustaining one's self," and "why do you care that I am rich," are two different statements? But nice try in changing your "point"

homegr0wn's picture

I don't know why you're calling yourself Jethro, but we'll continue on. Hopefully I'm not intruding on your weekend of mudbogging, Jethro.

Anyway... let's look at your second (modified) point. Why should anyone care that you're rich? I'm assuming you didn't read the article since this point was addressed. The author clearly delineated, in the first few paragraphs nonetheless, the difference between a Steve Jobs and a con job. So, why would anyone care that Con Job got rich from hurting the masses? Why would anyone care that Con Job is rich? We should look the other way?

mayhem_korner's picture

Society always has cheaters, that's not the problem. The problem is the enabling govt structure. I don't blame nor envy the con job.

homegr0wn's picture

So, you're avoiding the question that you proposed. We should not be concerned with how a person gathered their wealth. We shouldn't blame nor question the wealth of people who cheat and hurt society. Good to know. Seems like a solid society.

Flakmeister's picture

Chase 'em down... Mr Mayhem likes to say stuff and then deny it by obfuscation...

BTW, you nailed him...

mayhem_korner's picture

Up from your bogey-hangover nap, Dr. know-nothing?  Nice of you to be a grandstander yet again.  I see I've kept your normal rants down to sentence fragments.

Carry on...

Flakmeister's picture

Naw, I usually reserve my efforts for worthier game. The way I see it, you are on the run again. No need to pile on.

Hook Line and Sphincter's picture


D.M.'s picture

The issue isn't how do we re-distribute wealth. The problem is some people choose to earn their living in a destructive, dishonest way that, in this day and age, can bring the whole global economy to it's knees. IMO, we need to re-evaluate the way our economy and lives are structured by finding a good medium between a rising standard of living and harmony with life on earth. I suggest we start with the infinite growth paradigm. 

Dburn's picture

Enforcing the rule of law would be a start with appropriate monetary remedies to those affected.

Flakmeister's picture

Let's take a more empirical approach, history has shown us that gross inequality presages violent changes and/or massive social upheaval. For example, the French and Russian Revolutions and the conditions leading to the Great Depression. Another way of looking at it is to pose the question "How many countries with an extreme GINI index would I consider living in?"

I think the answer is pretty obvious.

So while there is no recipe for what a correct wealth distribution should look like, it is very clear that extreme inequality is not a desirable outcome based on historical precedents. The devil is in the details of how this is addressed.

nmewn's picture

"Chase 'em down..."

I shake my tail feathers in your general direction Flakey ;-)

Flakmeister's picture

Compared to you, this guy is in way over his head....

He has managed to shoot himself in the foot two, maybe three times so far in this thread. You were better than that...

BTW, did you see the latest Swedish growth and deficit numbers? Gotta laugh, IKEA opened a plant in N (or S.) Carolina to take advantage of the labor conditions (or lack there of), I love the irony.

nmewn's picture

No I hadn' one wants to actually work in Sweden I take it ;-)

But I did see this latest socialist/fascist experiment go down in flames. Half a billion bucks.

"The White House may soon face a congressional subpoena to turn over documents relating to the Department of Energy's $535 million loan guarantee to California solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, as Republicans in the House of Representatives blasted the Office of Management and Budget for failing to provide a witness to an oversight hearing last week."

Flakmeister's picture

IIRC,  6% growth, deficit of 0.3% GDP...  something this country has not seen in a long time. How could that be??

Anyway, love to stay and chat, but gotta run...

nmewn's picture

We've been down this road.

Income taxes of 58% combined with a VAT of 25%...I'm shocked His majesty/midgetry allows the taxes up higher on these serfs!!!

TTFN ;-)

AldousHuxley's picture

Taxes and deaths is fact of life.

If I pay income tax of 58% while getting free everything I need in life, then let's have it. In US, middle class pays high tax while getting jack squat.Thus the dissatisfaction with congress.

But capitalists are no better either. They use capital to grow even richer without having any benefit to society. wall st. vs. scientific research.


The issue is who controls redistribution and wealth and who is holding these few elites responsible?  Right now government elites are out of control and finance elites are also out of control.


They are both colluding to cheat the rest of us.



nmewn's picture

"If I pay income tax of 58% while getting free everything I need in life, then let's have it."

You forgot the VAT...tack on another 25% = 83%. As you can see, you have now paid for all this "free" stuff haven't you? And I do wonder what is their carrying charge for these wonderful "free" things ;-)

Maybe you can now save that "extra" 17% that Swedens government "allows" you...that you labored 100% for (or not).

Is life just surviving...or is it really about living it?

If you desire to place your body, soul and freedom at the alter of the state be my guest. Its when you try to impose it on me I have a very big problem.

Here, the government is supposed to stand between the thief and the citizen, not become an accomplice to the theft.

AldousHuxley's picture

I agree there is no free lunch. You either pay the government or a corporation or a person to person services, provide goods etc. Even if you do things yourself, you have opportunity cost.

I've paid VAT before so I know what it is like. And just because you don't pay VAT doesn't mean you are saving in total taxes over life time....there are plenty of other ways to tax you. income, wealth, license fees, real estate. What good is low sales taxes when people abuse that and become blind consumerists buying cheap crap from China? Then low sales means we are encouraging stupid consumers at the cost of disincentivising savers.

Government is good in one thing....common interest for long term interest. Private people would never invest their money in such risky investment such as the internet in 1960s. In fact, private wealth tends to hoard to conserve their standing in society. sometimes taxes are the only way. With internet, government sold it to the rich by saying it is for national defense.




nmewn's picture

"I agree there is no free lunch. You either pay the government or a corporation or a person to person services, provide goods etc."

Which is my point exactly. Its my money, earned from my labor, to be spent how I desire...unforced.

But this is fundamental to understand for any society.

If you allow "something" (government in this case but it applies broadly, the Fed and money printing, whatever) to take from another for any reason to give to you, there will come a time when it takes from you, for any reason it wishes.

It can be your home, because it doesn't meet some arcane standard. Or your car, your pet, or your it doesn't need any excuse or a reason because you allowed the degradation of your freedom over time yourself, in order to get to this point.

Government is not your friend and neither are corporations or banks...they all have to be restrained, that falls to us.


trav7777's picture

an assload of honest white people?

mayhem_korner's picture

Just a master off mouthing off, interloping, but never adding any substance, Flak. You think you have some kind of status simply by declaring it, but you don't. And your lack of confidence is evident by the fact that you never put any original thought out there. Just respond with pre-packaged points and self-deifying references.

When you bring some substance, you'll get some respect.

Flakmeister's picture

Au contraire.... you seem very adept at spouting off talking points and constructing flawed arguments, whereas, it is safe the say, I am one of the more respected posters on energy matters here at the Hedge.

Go mentally masturbate elsewhere, preferably your mothers basement.. 

mayhem_korner's picture

You're a hero in your own mind.  Proclaiming one's level of respect by others is a pinnacle of narcissism.  Good luck with it, though.

snowball777's picture

And how many of us would have to agree with his assessment for you to eat crow?

I'm one of many that respect Doc's knowledge of the energy complex and have learned from his posts on the subject.

And calling him out for narcissism of all things...that's rich.

mayhem_korner's picture

And how many of us would have to agree with his assessment for you to eat crow?

A majority of voters in 2008 voted for Obama, according to the election results.  Were they "right"? 

And BTW, I find Flak fun to spar with.  He's articulate and thoughtful.  I just think he's got some fundamental things wrong and he's blind to it.

Flakmeister's picture

By my count, that's the 4th flawed argument you have constructed. Better brush up on your syllogisms and what not...

Thank you for trying to set me on the straight and narrow, unfortunately, a man who walks a crooked path is rarely the best guide.

mayhem_korner's picture

I am one of the more respected posters on energy matters

How's that jibe with your pumpin' of the global warming hoax?

DaveyJones's picture

thanks for "simplifying" that complex subject

Flakmeister's picture

Here is an example of a paid GW denier getting nailed for fraudulent science.

There is no shortage of people that will say anything for $1,000,000 a year...After the above blog was posted, Dr. Soon systematically edited his website (see post #50)

You don't know enough about climate science to say whether it is a hoax or not. You cannot even explain in your own words why you think it is wrong.

Unlike debates about wealth distribution and the role of the state, where possesion of a functioning anus entitles you to comment and hold a opinion, there are some things where a working knowledge of the basics is a prerequisite  to speak out with any authority. So my advice to you is to educate yourself and until then, be an agnostic on the subject, lest you expose yourself as a complete and utter fool.

Now back to the British Open...

i-dog's picture

"where possesion of a functioning anus entitles you to comment and hold a opinion, there are some things where a working knowledge of the basics is a prerequisite  to speak out with any authority"

Perhaps you should follow your own advice?!! I'm getting really tired of you hysterical AGW Scaremongers being suckered in by Al Gore's pseudo-scientific dog-and-pony show and blaming all heating, cooling, floods, droughts, tsunamis, flat seas, hurricanes and doldrums on AGW!

Follow the money and it all leads back to the Vampire Squid and the IMF. Or you could try following some evidence:

Bloomberg: Aug 4, 2010: Argentina is importing record amounts of energy as the coldest winter in 40 years drives up demand and causes natural-gas shortages.

BBC: Jul 18, 2010: The unusually cold winter weather in South America follows one of the coldest winters for years in many parts of the northern hemisphere.

Telegraph: Jun 30, 2010: Sydney was blanketed in frost on Wednesday as the city shivered through the coldest June morning in nearly 30 years, with temperatures at just 4C

Australian Bureau of Meteorology: Jul 5, 2011: Some sites had their coldest June day (lowest maximum temperature) on record.

The Sun: Jul 16, 2011: BRITAIN'S soggy summer has so far been the coolest for 20 years - with warnings of more unsettled weather to come.

National Geographic: Feb 28, 2007: Mars Melt Hints at Solar, Not Human, Cause for Warming, Scientist Says.

And then there was Climategate...............

Flakmeister's picture

Classic denier fallacious argument. You argue that GW means it gets warmer everywhere, what it implies is that the poles get warmer and the mid latitudes exhibit greater extremes. Is this the extent of your understanding? 

While not a proof of anything, I suggest you read the following

How about this from yesterday?

This past June was the 7th warmest on record....

As for Climategate, get up to speed on the matter:

I notice that your sources of objective scientific analysis somehow forgot to publicize the followup to the hyped story....


i-dog's picture

Hahahaha. First Al Gore told us that the rainforests would turn to deserts and dogs would cohabit with cats. Now your argument is that the polar ice caps will melt away and the mid-latitudes will get colder (to fit the actual data)?!!

Now have a go at fitting your bizarre and ever-changing theory to this little factlet: Antarctic ice is growing, not melting away

You're a waste of space! Apart from the fact that the AGW "science" is a joke, the very last thing the world needs right now is a new global tax on breathing while the banking system is collapsing and unemployment is at Great Depression levels.

Al Gore started this ridiculous AGW charade in the middle of the bubble ... expecting that the wealth effect would ensure easy passage of the tax dollars to him and his masters. That no longer applies.

Give it a rest.

Flakmeister's picture

Re: Antarctic Ice

Please check:


While it is true that locally sea ice is increasing, the Land Ice is decreasing at an accelerating rate.  Overall, the Antarctica is loosing Ice. Melting Sea Ice does not increase ocean levels, whereas Land Ice does.

Typical denier, cherry pick the data.

Incubus's picture

Oh snap, you're not pulling any punches, are ya?  You went straight for the basement.

mayhem_korner's picture

So, you're avoiding the question that you proposed. We should not be concerned with how a person gathered their wealth.

I did not ask the question as to how someone gathered wealth - you did.  I just asked if you have what you need, why is it so important what others have?  You're doing the spinnning, not me.

Keep up the bravado.

Bobbyrib's picture

You do understand that by trying to make a point you made the other side's point, right? Also a lot of people aren't getting by right now. We have a near 20% real unemployment rate.

Bob Sacamano's picture

"Aren't getting by."  US bottom quintile is among the top quintile in the world.

Can not have a rational discussion about poverty on a relative basis -- only absolute basis.  Otherwise the only solution is equal outcomes for all - understanding some here prefer such.

And back to my original question -- who decides the "correct" distribtution?? 

blunderdog's picture

Can not have a rational discussion about poverty on a relative basis...

What?  Pull yourself together, man.  You're talking nonsense.

In India, $5/day is a good living--a home, good food, transportation--all covered.  In the USA, you cannot afford the basic necessities of life (food, shelter) on $5/day.

There's clearly no way to have a rational discussion about anything with YOU.

Urban Redneck's picture



In India, $5 a day is not a good living, and will not cover a home, food, and transportation as defined or commonly thought of in the US.  India on $5 a day will cover a hut made of garbage scrap, walking as form of transportation, and "food" that isn't inspected by the FDA or comes in nice packaging. 


Incidentally, the wealth disaprity between the richest and poorest is a hell of lot larger in India than in the US.


blunderdog's picture

If you don't like the economic conditions of India, that's fine, but its life for 17% of the planet.  "A good living" doesn't have to involve the FDA.  (WTF?)

The top 40% of income earners is "a good living," even if you think the country is a shithole.