Americans in the top one percent, like Americans in most income brackets, are not there permanently, despite being talked about and written about as if they are an enduring "class" -- especially by those who have overdosed on the magic formula of "race, class and gender," which has replaced thought in many intellectual circles.And that same transience also holds for those at the bottom.
At the highest income levels, people are especially likely to be transient at that level. Recent data from the Internal Revenue Service show that more than half the people who were in the top one percent in 1996 were no longer there in 2005.
Among the top one-hundredth of one percent, three-quarters of them were no longer there at the end of the decade.
These are not permanent classes but mostly people at current income levels reached by spikes in income that don't last.
These income spikes can occur for all sorts of reasons. In addition to selling homes in inflated housing markets like San Francisco, people can get sudden increases in income from inheritances, or from a gamble that pays off, whether in the stock market, the real estate market, or Las Vegas.
Some people's income in a particular year may be several times what it has ever been before or will ever be again.
Among corporate CEOs, those who cash in stock options that they have accumulated over the years get a big spike in income the year that they cash them in. This lets critics quote inflated incomes of the top-paid CEOs for that year. Some of these incomes are almost as large as those of big-time entertainers -- who are never accused of "greed," by the way.
Most Americans in the top fifth, the bottom fifth, or any of the fifths in between, do not stay there for a whole decade, much less for life. And most certainly do not remain permanently in the top one percent or the top one-hundredth of one percent.It also means that any policy such health care or universal pre-school or whatever the candidates are proposing that is supposed to be paid for simply by dropping the Bush tax cuts for capital gains or some other decrease in tax cuts for the top one percent is not based on a sure funding stream.
Most income statistics do not follow given individuals from year to year, the way Internal Revenue statistics do. But those other statistics can create the misleading illusion that they do by comparing income brackets from year to year, even though people are moving in and out of those brackets all the time.
That especially includes the top one percent, who have become the focus of so much angst and so much rhetoric.