12/07/2012 04:13 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

America's Trickle "Up" Economy and the Rationalization of Inequality


Republicans love touting the benefits of trickle-down economics and are still doing it in the big debate over tax cuts for the wealthy. The idea is simple: The more money the people on top make, the more the people below will benefit from the dripping down of that prosperity. The hidden agenda here, of course, is the rationalization of inequality. By linking the welfare of working-class Americans directly to the prosperity of the rich, the Republicans can protect the insulated interests of corporations and the wealthy without the fear of backlash.

In reality, however, the only thing that trickles down in the Republican universe is you-know-what. Our economy is actually a trickle "up" economy instead, based on a lopsided pyramid scheme that ensures the rising up of prosperity rather than the dripping down.

Consider the example of investment banking, a white-collar profession that raises money for companies and provides advice for mergers, divestitures, and other strategic alternatives. I chose this example because the pyramid structure illustrated by it is magnified a thousand times in blue-collar environments, the retail industry, and other sectors where wage inequality between rank-and-file workers and senior management is even higher, and so it is telling that even in a relatively upscale business like investment banking, the contrasts are so extreme.

The investment banking hierarchy is essentially a large bureaucracy. At the bottom (ignoring maintenance staff like janitors and security guards) are the administrative assistants, who support several bankers at one time and make about $35,000 a year. Above them are the analysts, a cadre of college graduates whose life consists of 120-hour work weeks and an endless stream of menial tasks for $65,000 to $90,000 a year. Next up, and supported by the analysts, are the associates -- freshly minted MBAs with more than a $100,000 in school loans hanging over them -- who can look forward to taking home between $100,000 and $175,000 a year. If these young men and women, who work 90-hour weeks while trying to juggle a family, survive long enough to become vice presidents, their compensation can rise to $200,000-$300,000 per year.

So far so good, but here is where the gravy train takes a sharp turn towards the absurd.

Above the vice presidents are the directors, which is a training zone for the next pay grade (or a graveyard for those who don't have what it takes). Directors rely on the workers below them to do all the grunt work, including research, financial analysis, and client presentations, while they mainly babysit clients and occasionally come up with ideas to pitch to them. Their pay for these relatively cushy tasks ranges from $350,000 to $500,000 per year; but even this is meager compared to what their superiors make. Managing directors, who work even less and spend more time golfing instead, can make anywhere from a million to several million dollars a year.

Finally you have the really big fish -- the CEOs, presidents, executive vice presidents, and others who manage the entire circus, think deep thoughts, and schmooze with politicians to get regulations loosened. What makes these gigs so coveted is not just the fact that few ever manage to leapfrog into that echelon but that the pay scale can jump to tens of millions of dollars (and for celebrity executives, even hundreds) per year for work that is only moderately more challenging than that of the managing directors. It may be lonely at the top, but it's pretty lucrative too.

It should be clear from the above that the wealth generated in these organizations gathers mainly at the top of the pyramid, while the people at the bottom, who do a lot of the heavy lifting and are instrumental in building that wealth, receive only a fraction of those riches. Sure, the pay scales in investment banking are pretty good by the standards of other industries, but it is the proportional difference between the compensation at the top and the bottom that makes a difference. This large income gap leads to an exponentially faster accumulation of wealth in a few hands, which in turn widens the prosperity gap even more. In other words, prosperity is not really trickling down but trickling up.

The problem with this is obvious. The more wealth trickles up in our system, the more it frustrates those at the bottom -- without whose efforts that wealth could not be created in the first place. Moreover, since money is a finite resource, disproportionately large compensation for senior executives is ultimately paid for not just by other employees, but by customers (whose pockets that money comes from) and shareholders (who receive less benefit from their investment) as well.

In a true trickle-down economy, the benefits of productivity and innovation would be shared fairly by all stakeholders, not just the select few with authority to dictate compensation and how the profits of a company are distributed. So while the idea of such a system might be appealing conceptually, it is not the way our economy really works, and if the Republicans really believe in trickle down, they should stop trying to whitewash the exploitative pyramid schemes of their wealthy donors and come up with a real model for equality instead.

SANJAY SANGHOEE has worked at leading investment banks and at a multi-billion dollar hedge fund. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is the author of a thriller titled "Merger", which Chicago Tribune called "Timely, Gripping, and Original." Please visit for more details.