Writing in this month's Atlantic (a magazine by and for the very people he writes about), Matthew Stewart says the 9.9%, not the 0.1%, are the real story in American inequality:
Let’s talk first about money—even if money is only one part of what makes the new aristocrats special. There is a familiar story about rising inequality in the United States, and its stock characters are well known. The villains are the fossil-fueled plutocrat, the Wall Street fat cat, the callow tech bro, and the rest of the so-called top 1 percent. The good guys are the 99 percent, otherwise known as “the people” or “the middle class.” The arc of the narrative is simple: Once we were equal, but now we are divided. The story has a grain of truth to it. But it gets the characters and the plot wrong in basic ways.
It is in fact the top 0.1 percent who have been the big winners in the growing concentration of wealth over the past half century. According to the UC Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the 160,000 or so households in that group held 22 percent of America’s wealth in 2012, up from 10 percent in 1963. If you’re looking for the kind of money that can buy elections, you’ll find it inside the top 0.1 percent alone.
In between the top 0.1 percent and the bottom 90 percent is a group that has been doing just fine. It has held on to its share of a growing pie decade after decade. And as a group, it owns substantially more wealth than do the other two combined. In the tale of three classes (see Figure 1), it is represented by the gold line floating high and steady while the other two duke it out. You’ll find the new aristocracy there. We are the 9.9 percent.
I recommend reading the whole article. But his conclusions jibe with things I've worried about for most of my adult life:
The toxic wave of wealth concentration that arose in the Gilded Age and crested in the 1920s finally crashed on the shoals of depression and war. Today we like to think that the social-welfare programs that were planted by the New Deal and that blossomed in the postwar era were the principal drivers of a new equality. But the truth is that those efforts belong more to the category of effects than causes. Death and destruction were the real agents of change. The financial collapse knocked the wealthy back several steps, and war empowered labor—above all working women.
That gilded, roaring surge of destruction was by no means the first such destabilizing wave of inequality to sweep through American history. In the first half of the 19th century, the largest single industry in the United States, measured in terms of both market capital and employment, was the enslavement (and the breeding for enslavement) of human beings. Over the course of the period, the industry became concentrated to the point where fewer than 4,000 families (roughly 0.1 percent of the households in the nation) owned about a quarter of this “human capital,” and another 390,000 (call it the 9.9 percent, give or take a few points) owned all of the rest.
The slaveholding elite were vastly more educated, healthier, and had much better table manners than the overwhelming majority of their fellow white people, never mind the people they enslaved. They dominated not only the government of the nation, but also its media, culture, and religion. Their votaries in the pulpits and the news networks were so successful in demonstrating the sanctity and beneficence of the slave system that millions of impoverished white people with no enslaved people to call their own conceived of it as an honor to lay down their life in the system’s defense.
That wave ended with 620,000 military deaths, and a lot of property damage. It did level the playing field in the American South for a time—though the process began to reverse itself all too swiftly.
I like where I am, no lie. But I recognize, as does Stewart, that we have a choice to make in how we reverse the trending inequality that has historically led to revolution. Food for thought.