Why did economists ignore the rise of the top one percent for so long?

Daniel Hirschman at the University of Michigan wrote a dissertation chapter on that topic, in the field of sociology, here is the abstract:

In the 2000s, academics and policymakers began to discuss the growth of top incomes in the United States, especially the “top 1%.” Newly analyzed data revealed that top income earners in the 1990s received a larger share of income than at any point since the Great Depression, and that their incomes had begun a dramatic upward climb in the early 1980s. This paper investigates why it took two decades for this increase in top incomes to become politically and academically salient. I argue that experts assembled two “regimes of perceptibility” (Murphy 2006) for producing knowledge about income inequality, and that neither of these regimes was capable of tracking movements in top incomes. Macroeconomists focused on labor’s share of national income, but did not examine the distribution of income between individuals. Labor economists, on the other hand, drew on newly available survey data to explain wage disparities in terms of education, age, work experience, race, and gender. By relying on surveys, these scholars unintentionally eliminated top incomes from view: surveys top-coded high incomes, and thus were incapable of seeing changes in the top 1%. Studies of top incomes that relied on income tax data thus fell by the wayside, creating the conditions under which experts, policymakers, and the public alike could be surprised by the rise of the 1%. This historical narrative offers insights into the political power of economic expertise by clarifying the complex linkages between observations, stylized facts, causal theories, and policy attention.

The chapter is here (pdf).  There is too much general background in this piece, and it is silly for the author to say that macroeconomics did not exist before 1930.  Most of all, that the import of the growth of incomes in the top one percent remains underexplained I think is outside his framework.  Nonetheless there are some points of interest throughout the chapter.

Here is Dan Hirschman’s home page.

Pointers run through Marshall Steinbaum and Henry Farrell.


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