… is to inherit a large fortune. Old joke. However, these days it’s even easier to inherit a large fortune and make an even larger one. It’s practically idiot-proof, actually.
A new book by French economist Thomas Piketty is causing quite a stir because Piketty just plain comes out and says that the malefactors of great inherited wealth are eating the world economy. Krugman says,
Mr. Piketty, arguably the worldâ€™s leading expert on income and wealth inequality, does more than document the growing concentration of income in the hands of a small economic elite. He also makes a powerful case that weâ€™re on the way back to â€œpatrimonial capitalism,â€ in which the commanding heights of the economy are dominated not just by wealth, but also by inherited wealth, in which birth matters more than effort and talent. …
… Itâ€™s generally understood that George W. Bush did all he could to cut taxes on the very affluent, that the middle-class cuts he included were essentially political loss leaders. Itâ€™s less well understood that the biggest breaks went not to people paid high salaries but to coupon-clippers and heirs to large estates. True, the top tax bracket on earned income fell from 39.6 to 35 percent. But the top rate on dividends fell from 39.6 percent (because they were taxed as ordinary income) to 15 percent â€” and the estate tax was completely eliminated.
Some of these cuts were reversed under President Obama, but the point is that the great tax-cut push of the Bush years was mainly about reducing taxes on unearned income. And when Republicans retook one house of Congress, they promptly came up with a plan â€” Representative Paul Ryanâ€™s â€œroad mapâ€ â€” calling for the elimination of taxes on interest, dividends, capital gains and estates. Under this plan, someone living solely off inherited wealth would have owed no federal taxes at all. …
… Why is this happening? Well, bear in mind that both Koch brothers are numbered among the 10 wealthiest Americans, and so are four Walmart heirs. Great wealth buys great political influence â€” and not just through campaign contributions. Many conservatives live inside an intellectual bubble of think tanks and captive media that is ultimately financed by a handful of megadonors. Not surprisingly, those inside the bubble tend to assume, instinctively, that what is good for oligarchs is good for America.
A 2011 study by Edward Wolff and Maury Gittleman found that the wealthiest 1 percent of families had inherited an average of $2.7 million from their parents. This was 447 times more money than the least wealthy group of people â€” those with wealth less than $25K â€” had inherited. In between the wealthiest and least wealthy groups, inheritance levels ran in exactly the direction you would expect: the wealthier a group of people was, the more they had inherited.
As outrageously lopsided as these inheritance disparities seem, they only reflect half of the inheritance problem. The funny thing about piles of wealth is that they deliver to their owners passive, unearned streams of income variously called rents, dividends, profits, capital gains, interest and so on. Those who get big inheritances can park those inheritances in investment accounts that just get bigger and bigger without them having to lift a finger. As a result, the gaping inheritance disparity actually grows even more gaping each year after the inheritances have been received. …
…Children of the wealthy could wind up receiving increasingly larger shares of the national wealth bequeathed to them, wealth that will allow them to generate soaring incomes from capital income alone. If that happens, the meritocratic rhetoric that we use to justify Americaâ€™s extraordinary levels of inequality will only become even more preposterous and delusional. Inheriting big piles of wealth and then using those piles to bring in even more unearned wealth is the exact opposite of meritocracy.