When I think about my financial well-being, I tend to think of income. My two-income, two-person household falls well above the American median of about $50,000. So I can’t complain (though I often do). But Harvard Professor Michael Norton, talking this morning to Steve Innskeep on Morning Edition, paints a different picture of wealth–looking at the distribution of financial assets–net worth. Looked at in this light, 20% of Americans have 85% of the wealth, the next 40% share 15% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% net out out at zip–nada–owning nothing on the plus side of the ledger but their lives.
Given my mortgage and other indebtedness, I may have a small piece of the 15%, or I may own nothing free and clear except my skin–hard to tell without doing more accounting than I am accustomed to doing. Most people don’t know, and most don’t want to know.
According to Norton, when asked how much they think the top 20% owns, people guess way too low. When asked what they think the top 20% should own, they say around 35 percent. This answer is very similar, whether the respondent is rich or poor, and regardless of political affiliation. The country that is closest to this wealth distribution is Sweden, but even in Sweden wealth is much more unequally distributed than Americans say they would prefer.
You would think that this level of cross-class, bipartisan consensus would have some impact on the economic debate raging in these election-year politics. However, that opinion appears to have a net worth of zero.