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The One Percent Gobbled Up the Recovery, Too

In fact, it put the 99 percent back in recession

President Obama's State of the Union speech will reportedly address the problems of the middle class, which has not fared well in this economy. Practically the only people who have fared well are the notorious one percent. To paraphrase the late New York City Mayor Ed Koch: How are they doin'?

Astoundingly well. Emmanuel Saez, the Berkeley economist who (with Thomas Piketty, an economist at the École d'economie de Paris) first mapped the enormous 34-year run-up in income share for America's top 1 percent, came up last year with a statistic that was widely quoted by people who care about rising income inequality. In 2010, the first year of economic recovery after the 2009-2010 recession, 93 percent of all pre-tax income gains went to the top 1 percent, which in that year meant any household making more than about $358,000. This was, I quipped at the time, a members-only recovery. No 99-percenters need apply.

Saez has now updated this statistic to include 2011. When you look at the economic recovery's first two years, the top one percent (which by 2011 meant any household making more than about $367,000) captured 121 percent of all pre-tax income gains.

How is it even possible for the one percent to capture more than 100 percent of all income gains since the last recession? Looked at from one point of view, it's not. It is enough to say that in 2010 and 2011 all of the recovery went to the one percent. If you were in the bottom 99 percent, as by definition nearly all of us are, you didn’t see a dime of that recovery.

What did the bottom 99 percent see? Over 2010 and 2011, it saw, on average, a slight net decline in pre-tax income of 0.4 percent. This "negative growth" is what, at least theoretically, boosts the one percent's share of income gains from 100 percent to 121 percent. If you think of income distribution as a Pac-Man game, with the one percent as Pac-Man, imagine your Pac-Man consuming all the pac-dots in one game and then somehow, after you’ve left the arcade, gobbling up some of the pac-dots in the next player’s game too. Another way to put it is that the one percent didn’t just gobble up all of the recovery during 2010 and 2011; it put the 99 percent back into recession.

It’s worth noting that 2011 wasn't an especially great year even for the mighty one percent. The one percent's pre-tax income stagnated that year. But the 99 percent's pre-tax income stagnated more. In 2010, the 99 percent's pre-tax income also stagnated (but didn’t decline), while the one percent's income rose sharply—sharply enough that, over both 2010 and 2011, the one percent saw a net increase in income, on average, of 11.2 percent. (All these numbers are corrected for inflation, of which there's been very little.) When the numbers come in for 2012, Saez predicts the one percent's income, on average, will once again have risen sharply "due to booming stock prices as well as re-timing of income to avoid the higher 2013 rates." The bottom 99 percent will have seen some income growth too, Saez predicts--though nothing remotely like the increase for the one percent.

In the meantime, we're left with an economic "recovery" in which the bottom 99 percent saw its pre-tax income decline over two years, and, during the second year, even the top one percent experienced negligible pre-tax income growth. If not to the one percent, where, in 2011, did the (admittedly anemic) economic recovery go? We have progressed from a members-only recovery to a Where's Waldo? recovery.

So where is Waldo? Initially I figured he had to be hiding in the nosebleed sections--the top 0.1 percent or the top 0.01 percent. But that turns out to be wrong.* The biggest gainers in 2011 were the bottom half of the top one percent, i.e., those making between $358,000 and $545,000. They saw their incomes increase, on average, by 1.70 percent (not much to write home about, but you've got to put a weak recovery somewhere). Interestingly, the group situated above the 99.99th percentile (2011 threshold: about $8 million) lost income in 2011. Remember, Saez urged me via e-mail, that not all the expansion in Gross Domestic Product for 2011 would be measurable as somebody's income. Undistributed corporate profits and non-taxable health insurance benefits both grew in 2011, Saez noted, but these wouldn't turn up in the IRS data on which he based these calculations.

If I were Obama, I'd be of two minds about flagging these statistics. On the one hand, they certainly make his case for the middle class more compelling. On the other hand … this happened on his watch! Since 1948, economic growth has most benefited those at the bottom of the income distribution whenever a Democrat was in the White House, and it's most benefited those at the top of the income distribution whenever a Republican was in the White House. Obama's first term, it seems increasingly clear, constitutes a dramatic break from this historic pattern. The U.S. economy’s current ability to expand—no matter who is president—without benefiting the 99 percent is something new. Perhaps we should do something to change that.

*Correction: An earlier version of this column stated, incorrectly, that only millionaires experienced the recovery in 2011. In fact, the biggest average gains were experienced by those within the one percent who earn a little more than half a million or less. Multimillionaires earning more than $8 million, on average, actually lost income in 2011.