Our New Gilded Statistical Golden Age

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

he people who lived — and suffered — through America’s original Gilded Age had plenty of problems. One just happened to be statistical. Back then, in the 19th century’s closing decades, everyone knew that the United States had become significantly more unequal. But no one had a firm take on just howunequal.

Good, reliable statistics on income and wealth distribution simply didn’t exist. The nation had no taxes on income and wealth — and no particular bureaucratic reason to collect data on either.

One Gilded Age U.S. senator, Richard Pettigrew from South Dakota, did do his best to prime the data pump. Pettigrew secured an amendment to the 1890 census bill that required enumerators “to ascertain the distribution of wealth through an inquiry into farms, homes, and mortgages.” A few years later, Pettigrew would use data from that enumeration to charge that 4,000 families, just 0.03 percent of the U.S. population, held 20 percent of the nation’s aggregate wealth.

Bur Pettigrew knew the nation needed much more in the way of raw data. He tried to get the next census, in 1900, to include a deeper dive into who owned what.

“The question as to what becomes of what the toilers of the land produce, whether it goes to them or is taken from them by special privileges and accumulated in the hands of a very few people,” Pettigrew told his Senate colleagues, “reaches ultimately the question of the preservation of free institutions.”

This past week has seen the latest entry into 2018’s global wealth report sweepstakes, the newly published World Ultra Wealth Report from Wealth-X, a New York- and London-based company focusing on intelligence and research on the top-end market.

The prime takeaway from the sixth edition of the Wealth-X World Ultra Wealth Report? Our world’s wealthiest had a banner year in 2017, even by their own lofty standards. The “ultra high net worth individual” crowd — those 255,810 swells with personal fortunes of at least $30 million — last year saw their combined wealth soar by 16.3 percent.

The United States sports the single-largest share of these ultras, 31 percent of the total, 79,595 individuals in all. No other nation comes close. In fact, the United States hosts more ultras than the world’s next five ultra-packed nations — Japan, China, Germany, Canada, and France — combined.

The Wealth-X researchers make no moral value judgment about the staggering concentrations of wealth their numbers describe. Nor do any of the other consulting outfits busy producing annual world wealth reports. They’re all just pointing financial and luxury firms to business opportunities.

Moral judgments about our inequality — and action steps against it — will have to come from the rest of us. In the meantime, we do appreciate the statistics. Keep ’em coming.


Reposted from Inequality.org

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality. He is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Last year, he played an active role on the team that generated The Nation magazine special issue on extreme inequality. That issue recently won the 2009 Hillman Prize for magazine journalism. Pizzigati’s latest book, Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives (Apex Press, 2004), won an “outstanding title” of the year ranking from the American Library Association’s Choice book review journal.

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