Peter R. Orszag, Director of the OMB, on the award of the John Bates Clark medal to Emmanuel Saez:
Emmanuel is perhaps best known for his detailed examination of how wages at the top end of the U.S. income distribution have evolved over the past century. He and his co-author Thomas Piketty discovered that the overall pattern for the share of income accruing to those in the top 10 percent is U-shaped (see chart 1 below). Thus, the share going to the top 10 percent was around 45 percent from the mid-1920s to 1940, but then declined to approximately 33 percent during World War II. Emmanuel attributes this fall-off to the sharp reduction in capital incomes brought about by the war and the revenue increases needed to finance the war effort. After the war, the share of income accruing to the top 10 percent remained essentially flat until the late 1970s, when it began climbing dramatically, ultimately surpassing its pre-war highs. Indeed, in 2006, the top 10 percent earned 50 percent of national income, a higher share than even in 1928, the peak year of the “roaring twenties” stock market bubble.
Chart 1: Share of Total U.S. Income Accruing to the Top 10%, 1917-2006
Perhaps even more interesting than his findings about the evolution in earnings for the top 10% is what he found when he isolated data from just the top 1 percent of earners—namely, that virtually all the historical fluctuation in the share of income going to the top 10 percent was due to fluctuations in income within the top percentile alone (see chart 2 below).