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Inequality and Modernization

Why Equality Is Likely to Make a Comeback

A businessman looks over the  Occupy London protest camp outside St. Paul's Cathedral in London, January 2011. Luke MacGregor / Reuters

During the past century, economic inequality in the developed world has traced a massive U-shaped curve—starting high, curving downward, then curving sharply back up again. In 1915, the richest one percent of Americans earned roughly 18 percent of all national income. Their share plummeted in the 1930s and remained below ten percent through the 1970s, but by 2007, it had risen to 24 percent. Looking at household wealth rather than income, the rise of inequality has been even greater, with the share owned by the top 0.1 percent increasing to 22 percent from nine percent three decades ago. In 2011, the top one percent of U.S. households controlled 40 percent of the nation’s entire wealth. And while the U.S. case may be extreme, it is far from unique: all but a few of the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for which data are available experienced rising income inequality (before taxes

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