75% “of All Wealth Is Created Anew in Each Generation”

(p. A17) Despite the liberal background of the author, however, “A Century of Wealth in America” offers comfort and support to those who favor less wealth taxation. A core element of Mr. Piketty’s indictment of contemporary wealth inequality was his claim that inheritance is the major source of wealth; he estimated that, given the slower economic growth that most economists anticipate in the future, inherited wealth would soon constitute 90% of wealth in economies such as that of the United States. But Mr. Wolff finds that, for modern America, wealth inheritance explains a much more modest share of private wealth: In 1989-2013, it was 23% on average. In other words, more than three-quarters of all wealth is created anew in each generation in the U.S. . . .

Even more surprising, inherited wealth is much more important in the lives of those who have relatively little wealth than it is in the lives of the super rich. For the top 1% of wealth holders from 1989 to 2013, inherited wealth accounted for only 17% of their assets. (The 1%, in this analysis, is an overwhelmingly self-made group.) By contrast, for those with assets of just $25,000-$50,000, inherited wealth accounted for 52% of their worth.

As a bizarre consequence of this pattern, African-Americans, who have low levels of net worth on average, are the social group for which inherited wealth represents the largest share of their net worth. Another odd implication is that inheritances tend to make overall wealth-holding more equal. Were inherited wealth to be completely abolished, the wealth of the poor would decline more than that of the rich. Inherited wealth is the great equalizer. Who knew?

. . .

. . . , Mr. Wolff calculates that the rich are not systematically generating higher returns on their assets than more modest wealth holders. The top 1% had a real return on net worth of around 3% over the 30 years from 1983 to 2013—the same return as the average wealth holder.

For the full review, see:

Gregory Clark. “BOOKSHELF; How the Richest Got That Way; In the U.S. more than three-quarters of all wealth is created anew in each generation, and the ‘1%’ is an overwhelmingly self-made group.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, December 12, 2017): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 11, 2017, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; Review: How the Richest Got That Way; In the U.S. more than three-quarters of all wealth is created anew in each generation, and the ‘1%’ is an overwhelmingly self-made group.”)

The book under review is:

Wolff, Edward N. A Century of Wealth in America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2017.

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