My mother, a spry 95, is full of pithy sayings. “Climbing the greasy ladder”, as a euphemism for career struggles, has always seemed particularly apt. And also turns out to be accurate.
A bunch of smart folks have compiled longitudinal tax records from many countries, including the US. (The “World Top Incomes Database” or WTID.) This data paints a picture for incomes over time. For the US, the best metaphoric picture I’ve seen is that of a ladder, with each rung representing an income group. Over time, the income ladder has become stretched. The bottom rungs are actually a bit farther off the ground. Not much, but some. The top rungs? Much farther off the ground, and much farther away from all of the other rungs.
While the ladder has stretched, movement up and down the ladder has remained constant. The rungs may be farther apart and the ladder might be taller, but the chances of moving up, or down, are still about the same. The ladder is still greasy. Just taller.
Executive Summary of NBER Working Paper 19844, January 2014, Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, Emmanuel Saez, and Nicholas Turner
I do worry about the rising spread of incomes. Something about having the top incomes increasingly far from the bottom ones does’t feel right. But I worry most about maintaining movement on the ladder. Creating and increasing chances for betterment. Helping people at the bottom rungs continue to have the opportunity to climb up a taller greasy ladder.
2014. “Inequality in the long run” in Science 23, May 2014 by Thomas Piketty and Emmanual Saez
2014. “Is the United States Still a Land of Opportunity? Recent Trends in Intergenerational Mobility” in the National Bureau of Economic Research by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, Emmanuel Saez, and Nicholas Turner