Who are the 1%?

Nina Easton’s recent article “Stop Beating Up the Rich” begins by quoting the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville who chronicled American society’s often contradictory pursuit of both equality and the almighty dollar. “The love of wealth is at the bottom of all that the Americans do,” he wrote.

Between the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Presidential campaign, we’ve certainly heard a lot about the wealthy 1%. All the rhetoric encourages us to conjure images of powerful executives who make hundreds of times what the average worker earns, fly about the country on private jets, and would rather take federal bailout money than pay their fair share of taxes.

But, as Easton points out, it’s inaccurate to categorize the 1% as “greedy, tax-avoiding, selfish capitalists.” In fact, she notes that most of the 1.4 million taxpayers who comprise the top 1% gained their wealth through hard work rather than by inheritance. “This group consists of a large number of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and small-time entrepreneurs, many of whom are working hard to create jobs. To vilify them is the wrong debate,” she writes.

Yes, the number of millionaires has grown over the past decade. In fact, a 2011 study by the Deloitte Center for Financial Services found that over the past decade the number of millionaire households rose from 7.7 million to 10.5 million. And the number of American millionaires is expected to double by 2020.

However, Easton suggests that pitting Americans against one another “distracts from the harder and far more important conversation: how to jump start the escalator for 23 million unemployed and underemployed — and for those whose incomes were stagnating well before the 2008 recession.” She also shares the perspective of Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, who studies competitiveness in the United States. Although he is critical of unfair executive compensation practices and corporate America’s failure to invest in the entire American workforce, he says, “It’s not a good idea to declare that people who are successful are bad. The better question is: Do we have a fair system for getting that education and skill? Are people unfairly handicapped? Are we doing enough to open the gateways?”

That’s food for thought.

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