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NC Budget and Tax Center

While swinging from one crisis to the next for the last several years, we have often lost sight of some long-term trends that we can’t ignore forever. For the last several decades, the United States has been growing apart, not together. The middle class has been contracting, rising out of poverty remains difficult, and parents doubt whether they can provide a better life for their children than they had. The American Dream, an organizing article of faith that helped to build the most diverse and wealthy nation in human history, is in trouble.

2014 End of Year Charts_wage growth

Over the last 35 years, median wages have hardly moved while people at the top of the income distribution have enjoyed significant income growth. As can be seen in the chart above, after adjusting for inflation the top 20% of wage earners have seen their income grow by more than $5 per hour since 1980, while folks at the median have seen less than half of that growth. This means that less and less of the prosperity generated by the North Carolina economy is going to the middle class. It has been a slow process, and one with many causes, but the trend is clear, increasingly present, and dangerous. If the middle class slowly disappears, the American Dream will go with it.

The long-term trends do not just spell trouble for the middle class. As can be seen below, the last decade has seen an explosion in the number of North Carolina counties that are home to high levels of inequality and poverty. The share of counties with this troubling paring of high-inequality and high-poverty has doubled since 2000, going from roughly 30% to over 60%. This means that in more than half of the counties in our state, income growth is doing little to lift people out of poverty. Again, the sort of trend that saps energy out of the American Dream.

2014 End of Year Charts_inequality and poverty

The potency of the American Dream relies on hard work being rewarded, talent being recognized, and people sharing in the wealth they create. If poor and working North Carolinians’ piece of the pie created keeps getting smaller, we will lose the source of our greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy, the American dream.

Looking back a year end and ahead into the future, the Budget and Tax Center compiled a 2014 Chartbook, which looks at a range of critical economic issues facing North Carolina. The bottom line is that we still have a long way to go and the growth that we are seeing is not exceptional but rather in line with the improving national picture.  The recovery has been built on low-wage jobs resulting in the persistence of elevated poverty levels despite improvements overall. State policy choices, namely the decision to cut taxes for the wealthy few and profitable corporations, have made it impossible to strengthen the infrastructure of opportunity in the state.  The result is that the recovery is bypassing many North Carolinians and communities and contributing to the growing divide in experience of opportunity and prosperity.

Commentary

The good people at Too Much Online – a newsletter put out by the group Inequality.org have an interesting and provocative idea that would seem guaranteed to improve the image of  America’s nonprofit community (which has been suffering from depressed contributions of late) and help combat the nation’s runaway inequality: cap nonprofit CEO salaries.

“Jack Gerard, the CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, pulled down $13.3 million in compensation last year. Yet his Institute operates as a ‘nonprofit’ — and reaps a variety of tax benefits from that status. In effect, average Americans are subsidizing this lobbying giant for the fossil fuels industry. Back in 1998, a member of Congress from New Jersey, Robert Menendez, introduced legislation to cap the salary that nonprofit executives could grab at no more than the salaries of U.S. cabinet secretaries, currently just under $200,000. That legislation never moved. But economist Dean Baker recently resurrected the notion of limiting the executive pay nonprofits could dish out and still qualify for nonprofit status. That limit could be tied to the ratio between a nonprofit’s CEO and typical worker pay. The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act requires for-profit corporations to disclose this ratio. Menendez introduced this disclosure mandate provision.”

Sounds like a good idea to us. As economist Dean Baker notes in the column cited above (which discusses the idea of capping the pay of university presidents):

“The universities will also complain that they cannot get qualified people for $400,000 a year. This one should invite a healthy dose of ridicule. If we can get qualified people to run the Defense Department and Department of Health and Human Services for half this amount, perhaps their school is not the sort of institution that deserves taxpayer support if it can’t find anyone willing to make the sacrifice of running the place for twice the pay of a cabinet secretary.

Free market economics is so much fun!”

Commentary

The maddening data on wealth inequality in America have now gotten so ridiculously out of hand that the headline for this post really does sum up what ought to be the single, defining issue in today’s election. For confirmation, check out the following amazing graphic from the good people at Inequality.org.

Wealth inequality

Commentary

The good folks at Inequality.org continue to do a great job of documenting America’s obscene and metastasizing wealth and income gaps. This week, in their online newsletter Too Much, they highlight as fascinating comparison between French and U.S. households when it comes to wealth. As you can see, Americans top the French when it comes to average wealth because the rich here are so much richer and all of their holdings gets factored in. When one looks at median wealth however (i.e. the wealth of the most typical adult) the French leave us in la poussière.  This graphic from the Too Much website tells the grim story.

US France wealth stats

Commentary

The good people at Inequality.org have stashed several nuggets of powerful information in today’s edition of Too Much: An online weekly on excess and inequality that will make you want to pound the table, but the story on the newest edition of Forbes magazine’s richest 400 gazillionaires is perhaps the most amazing — especially this little vignette on one of the richest of the plutocrats, former Oracle CEO Larry Ellison:

Take Larry Ellison, the third-ranking deep pocket on this year’s Forbes list. Ellison just stepped down as the CEO of the Oracle business software colossus. His net worth: $50 billion.

What does Ellison do with all those billions? He collects homes and estates, for starters, with 15 or so scattered all around the world. Ellison likes yachts, too. He currently has two extremely big ones, each over half as long as a football field.

Ellison also likes to play basketball, even on his yachts. If a ball bounces over the railing, no problem. Ellison has a powerboat following his yacht, the Wall Street Journal noted this past spring, “to retrieve balls that go overboard.”

And if Ellison’s ridiculous wealth doesn’t get you a little fired up, check out this graph from the same story showing just how rapidly he and his peers are leaving the rest of us in their wake:

Billionaires graph