If you want to get some idea of why the 99 per cent movement has attracted so much support in the US, just take a look at this graph. Over the last thirty years, the share of income taken by the top 1 per cent of Americans has risen from 10 per cent to 23.5 per cent. Even more remarkably, the share taken by the top 0.1 per cent (the top 14,988 US families, making at least $11.5m in 2007) has risen from 1 per cent to 6 per cent. Income inequality in the US is now at its highest level since 1928 (see this excellent Berkeley report for more data), when the top 1 per cent took home 23.9 per cent.
As you’ll notice, from the 1950s onwards, income distribution in the US remained broadly stable until the Thatcher-Reagan revolution. The neoliberal policies pursued by the Reagan administration – tax cuts for the wealthy (the top rate of tax was reduced from 50 per cent to 28 per cent), deregulation and privatisation, led to a dramatic rise in inequality.
Consequently, it’s no surprise that even in the US, where the Tea Party has tilted the political spectrum rightwards, the majority of citizens support the aims of the 99 per cent movement. A recent Time/Abt SRBI poll found that 54 per cent had a “very favourable” (25 per cent) or “somewhat favourable” (29 per cent) view of the movement.
It was Alan Greenspan, a disciple of free-market guru Ayn Rand, who remarked in 2005: “This is not the type of thing which a democratic society – a capitalist democratic society – can really accept without addressing.” Obama now has a huge political opportunity to win support for a renewed drive against inequality. He was memorably attacked during the 2008 presidential election for wanting to “spread the wealth” but the polls suggest that’s exactly what the voters want him to do.
As for the UK, we’re not doing much better. The richest 10 per cent now receives 31 per cent of national income and owns almost half of the country’s personal assets, while the poorest 10 per cent takes home just 1 per cent of the total income. The coalition’s decision to rely on spending cuts (which hit the poorest hardest), rather than tax rises, to reduce the deficit will inevitably widen the gap. Conservatives may criticise the Occupy London movement but they cannot deny that it reflects a grim empirical reality.