America is getting richer, but you aren't: The only chart that matters

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The USA is the richest large country in the world. According to the World Bank, America’s GDP per capita in 2013 was $53,042. There are countries higher up on that list, like Norway (with its oil wealth) and Switzerland (with its tax-haven status), but none of them have even one tenth of America’s population. The next-richest big country, Germany, has a per capita GDP of $46,251, while Japan has just $38,633. Korea, on $25,976, has less than half the per capita GDP of the US.

So, why don’t you feel rich?

The answer is that there are rich countries, and there are countries where the population is rich — and they’re not always the same. The USA is doing so well on the GDP per capita stakes because it has seen pretty impressive economic growth for decades. Here’s a chart of America’s real GDP — the amount of economic activity going on within the country, adjusted for inflation. As you can see, it has doubled since 1987, even after accounting for the massive financial crisis and recession of 2008-9.


The problem is that the hundreds of millions of people who comprise the USA aren’t themselves getting any richer. Real median income is stagnant, and has been for years. The rich are getting richer, and the rest of us are going nowhere. Or, to put it another way: capital is winning out over labor.


One of the most compelling ways of showing this is to chart median household income against GDP.

There’s a problem with static charts, however: It’s impossible to show how longstanding and intractable the problem really is. This chart looks bad — is bad — if you start in 1993, but it also gives the impression that maybe things were fine up until 1999 or so. Which they weren’t.

So play around with Fusion’s interactive chart, which allows you to see what the chart looks like with any starting point from 1967 onwards. (Try a starting point of 1999 if you want to be really depressed.) It won’t inspire you. But it might help you to understand just how intractable the wages problem is in this country.