In the United States, the richest 1 percent have seen their share of national income roughly double since 1980, to 20 percent in 2014 from 11 percent. This trend, combined with slow productivity growth, has resulted in stagnant living standards for most Americans.
Almost all of the growth in top American earners has come from just three economic sectors: professional services, finance and insurance, and health care, groups that tend to benefit from regulatory barriers that shelter them from competition.
The groups that have contributed the most people to the 1 percent since 1980 are: physicians; executives, managers, sales supervisors, and analysts working in the financial sectors; and professional and legal service industry executives, managers, lawyers, consultants and sales representatives.
Without changes in these largely domestic services industries — finance, health care, the law — the United States would look like Canada or Germany in terms of its top income shares.
The United States also stands out in terms of how much money its elite professionals earn relative to the median worker. Workers at the 90th percentile of the income distribution for professionals make 3.5 times the earnings of the typical (median) worker in all occupations in the United States. Only Mexico and Israel, which have very high inequality, compensate professionals so disproportionately. In Switzerland, the Netherlands, Finland and Denmark, the ratio is about 2 to 1.
This ratio, the elite professions premium, is very highly correlated with income inequality across countries.
Others are noticing these trends. A new book, “The Captured Economy” by Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles, argues that regressive regulations — laws that benefit the rich — are a primary cause of the extraordinary income gains among elite professionals and financial managers in the United States and of a reduction in growth.
This year, the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves wrote a book about how people in the upper middle class have shaped both legal and cultural norms to their advantage. From different perspectives, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich and Luigi Zingales have also written extensively about how the political power of elites has undermined markets.