The Undeserving One Percent?

CHICAGO – It is amazing how the “one percent” epithet, a reference to the top 1% of earners, has caught on in the United States and elsewhere in the developed world. In the United States, this 1% includes all those with a 2006 household income of at least $386,000. In the popular narrative, the 1% is thickly populated with unscrupulous corporate titans, greedy bankers, and insider-trading hedge-fund managers. Reading some progressive economists, it might seem that the answer to all of America’s current problems is to tax the 1% and redistribute to everyone else.

Of course, underlying this narrative is the view that this income is ill-gotten, made possible by Bush-era tax cuts, the broken corporate governance system, and the conflict-of-interest-ridden financial system. The 1% are not people who have earned money the hard way by making real things, so there is no harm in taking it away from them.

Clearly, this caricature is based on some truth. For instance, corporations, especially in the financial sector, reward too many executives richly despite mediocre performance. But apart from tarring too many with the same brush, there is something deeply troubling about this narrative’s reductionism.

It ignores, for example, the fact that many of the truly rich are entrepreneurs. It likewise ignores the fact that many of the wealthy are sports stars and entertainers, and that their ranks include professionals such as doctors, lawyers, consultants, and even some of our favorite progressive economists. In other words, the rich today are more likely to be working than idle.