HISTORICALLY, MOST ECONOMIC systems revolve around who owns the wealth. As an economist and historian, this is the question I bring to any discussion about our current economic crisis and any future “new economy” we might imagine.
While income distribution is important, wealth distribution is much more unevenly allocated in American society, and it gets very little attention. Let’s quickly look at the numbers.
The richest 400 people in the U.S. own more wealth than the bottom 60 percent of the population. That’s more wealth (stocks, bonds, and businesses, but also houses and cars) than the bottom 150 million Americans. And the top 1 percent owns almost 50 percent of the society’s productive investment assets (corporate stocks, bonds, and privately held businesses, excluding cars and houses).
When you ask who owns the productive assets of the society, then you’re asking who owns American capitalism. The answer is: The top 1 percent owns just under half of it.
With this kind of wealth distribution, what we have is literally a medieval structure. I don’t mean that figuratively. It is a feudalistic structure of extreme power and wealth. And it is anathema to democracy to have that kind of concentration. This distribution of wealth—and the the fact that the top 1 percent has, over the last 30 years, increased its share of income from about 9 percent to about 20 percent—tells you something about the political/economic power harnessed to achieve that end.
The “new economy movement” that is building momentum around the country asserts that you can’t have a democratic society unless you democratize the ownership of wealth as well.
Here are six examples of where that’s happening right now: