My friend Paul Krugman (hey, he linked to me, I can pretend) posts this chart from Emmanuel Saez, which shows that in 2007 the top 0.01% of income earners in America took home 6% of the national income.
Let's get some scale here. In 2007 there were 301M people in America, which gives us 30,100 people in that top 0.01%. CIA Factbook says US GDP for 2007 was $14.11T in PPP US dollars. 6% of that is $846B. So the top 0.01% averaged $28 million dollars in income, each. Wow. That isn't quite correct since Saez is actually using "tax units" rather than people for his top 0.01% so this might only represent 12-15K actual IRS tax returns, and you probably can't divide GDP quite that neatly, but we're still talking about a tiny number of people taking an inordinate piece of the pie.
Following Krugman's link to Saez, I found this chart (which I snazzified):
[click to enlarge in new window]
Note this is now the top 0.1% (vice top 0.01% in Krugman's post). Check out the blue (the bottom chunk for the colourblind). That's employment income. Contrast the share of their income that salary made up between the classic gilded age (c1929) and the modern one, and see how much bigger a share is coming from salary (and bonus). Otherwhere in the data (fig4) Saez gives you the percentages of each category of income for the top 0.1%, where you can learn that in 1929, captial gains made up about 65% of the income of the top 0.1ers, and employment income was 20%. Skip to 2007, and employment now makes up almost 50%, with capital gains down at 20% (remainder is something called "entrepreneurial income" for which I can't locate a definition).
I post this because we are regularly exposed to anecdotal stories of how much this or that CEO makes, or some trader's obscene bonus, but it is important to have some data that shows this is a real phenomenon and not just a few isolated exceptions blown out of proportion. It turns out that $70 million here and $16 billion there and pretty soon you're talking about real money. Upper management in America's corporations really are emptying the till like never before.