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The 99 percent just had their best year of the 21st century

Occupy Wall Street Activists Mark 2 Year Anniversary Of Movement Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Emmanuel Saez, the UC Berkeley economist and specialist on the empirical study of income inequality, has some good news for Americans: According to his analysis of preliminary IRS data, incomes for the bottom 99 percent of Americans grew 3.9 percent in 2015, delivering “the best annual growth rate since 1999.”

That’s pretty good! But Saez also darkens the mood with two pieces of contrary news:

  • Incomes for the top 1 percent grew even faster, at a blistering 7.7 percent pace.
  • Despite the one good year, the 99 percent are still worse off than they were before the recession.

This news does, however, raise the conceptual issue that post-2008 discussion of inequality has mostly avoided. Is it the 99 percent we care about, or the 1 percent?

In terms of strict egalitarianism, the best recent year was 2013, when the top 1 percent saw their incomes take a big hit due to Obama’s tax hikes, while the 99 percent’s incomes grew modestly. Last year the 99 percent did better than that, but the 1 percent did a lot better.

If you had to pick between the two as a model for growth over the next decade, which would you prefer — slow growth for the 99 percent paired with falling inequality, or more rapid growth paired with rising inequality? My guess is most people would favor the 2015 model, but a lot of recent rhetoric at least implies a preference for the 2013 model.

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