Inequality in America is on the rise. Income gains since the 1980s have been concentrated at the top. The top 10 percent today take home 30 percent of all income, and control over three-quarters of all wealth. We have returned to the level of income inequality that marked the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. The percentage of total income received by the top 1 percent of earners in the U.S. has risen from under 8 percent in the 1970s to over 18 percent today. The percentage of total wealth held by the richest 0.01 percent (the elite 1 percent of the 1 percent) has soared from under 3 percent to over 11 percent over this interval.
Who gets what in America continues to be impacted by a person’s race, gender and family resources. What’s striking, however, is how little people seem to notice. People increasingly think their society is a meritocracy – that success in school and business simply reflects hard work and talent. This belief is held most dearly by Americans, but citizens across the world are growing more convinced.
Scorpion met Frog on a river bank and asked him for a ride to the other side. “How do I know you won’t sting me?” asked Frog. “Because,” replied Scorpion, “if I do, I will drown.” Satisfied, Frog set out across the water with Scorpion on his back. Halfway across, Scorpion stung Frog. “Why did you do that?” gasped Frog as he started to sink. “Now we’ll both die.” “I can’t help it,” replied Scorpion. “It’s my nature.”
This centuries-old parable is usually meant to show how a bad nature cannot be changed—even if self-interest and preservation demand it. It’s also an apt metaphor for the growing income inequality, one of the defining issues of our age.