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It's the Market: The Broad-Based Rise in the Return to Top Talent

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  • Steven N. Kaplan
  • Joshua Rauh

Abstract

One explanation that has been proposed for rising inequality is that technical change allows highly talented individuals, or "superstars" to manage or perform on a larger scale, applying their talent to greater pools of resources and reaching larger numbers of people, thus becoming more productive and higher paid. Others argue that managerial power has increased in a way that allows those at the top to receive higher pay, that social norms against higher pay levels have broken down, or that tax policy affects the distribution of surpluses between employers and employees. We offer evidence bearing on the different theories explaining the rise in inequality in the United States over recent decades. First we look the increase in pay at the highest income levels across occupations. We consider the income share of the top 1 percent over time. And we turn to evidence on inequality of wealth at the top. In looking at the wealthiest Americans, we find that those in the Forbes 400 are less likely to have inherited their wealth or to have grown up wealthy. The Forbes 400 of today also are those who were able to access education while young and apply their skills to the most scalable industries: technology, finance, and mass retail. We believe that the US evidence on income and wealth shares for the top 1 percent is most consistent with a "superstar"-style explanation rooted in the importance of scale and skill-biased technological change. It is less consistent with an argument that the gains to the top 1 percent are rooted in greater managerial power or changes in social norms about what managers should earn.

Suggested Citation

  • Steven N. Kaplan & Joshua Rauh, 2013. "It's the Market: The Broad-Based Rise in the Return to Top Talent," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 27(3), pages 35-56, Summer.
  • Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:27:y:2013:i:3:p:35-56
    Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.27.3.35
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    References listed on IDEAS

    as
    1. Frank Levy & Peter Temin, 2007. "Inequality and Institutions in 20th Century America," NBER Working Papers 13106, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Lawrence F. Katz & Kevin M. Murphy, 1992. "Changes in Relative Wages, 1963–1987: Supply and Demand Factors," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 107(1), pages 35-78.
    3. Mark Bils & Mark Aguiar, 2010. "Has Consumption Inequality Mirrored Income Inequality?," 2010 Meeting Papers 1334, Society for Economic Dynamics.
    4. Jon Bakija & Adam Cole & Bradley Heim, 2008. "Jobs and Income Growth of Top Earners and the Causes of Changing Income Inequality: Evidence from U.S. Tax Return Data," Department of Economics Working Papers 2010-22, Department of Economics, Williams College, revised Jan 2012.
    5. Luis Garicano & Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, 2006. "Organization and Inequality in a Knowledge Economy," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 121(4), pages 1383-1435.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D31 - Microeconomics - - Distribution - - - Personal Income and Wealth Distribution
    • H23 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - Externalities; Redistributive Effects; Environmental Taxes and Subsidies
    • H24 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - Personal Income and Other Nonbusiness Taxes and Subsidies
    • J24 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Human Capital; Skills; Occupational Choice; Labor Productivity
    • J31 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs - - - Wage Level and Structure; Wage Differentials
    • O33 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Innovation; Research and Development; Technological Change; Intellectual Property Rights - - - Technological Change: Choices and Consequences; Diffusion Processes

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