Inequality Conundrum

Inequality Conundrum

by digby

Timothy Noah at Slate has begun a two week long analysis of income inequality in the United States and it looks to be fascinating. He starts off by noting that the earliest study of the phenomenon was done in 1915, a period of great social and political tumult everywhere. (You'll recall a little world war and communist revolution all happening around that time.)

He writes:

[1915] was when the richest 1 percent accounted for 18 percent of the nation's income. Today, the richest 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation's income. What caused this to happen? Over the next two weeks, I'll try to answer that question by looking at all potential explanations—race, gender, the computer revolution, immigration, trade, government policies, the decline of labor, compensation policies on Wall Street and in executive suites, and education. Then I'll explain why people who say we don't need to worry about income inequality (there aren't many of them) are wrong.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.Income inequality in the United States has not worsened steadily since 1915. It dropped a bit in the late teens, then started climbing again in the 1920s, reaching its peak just before the 1929 crash. The trend then reversed itself. Incomes started to become more equal in the 1930s and then became dramatically more equal in the 1940s. Income distribution remained roughly stable through the postwar economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Economic historians Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo have termed this midcentury era the "Great Compression." The deep nostalgia for that period felt by the World War II generation—the era of Life magazine and the bowling league—reflects something more than mere sentimentality. Assuming you were white, not of draft age, and Christian, there probably was no better time to belong to America's middle class.

The Great Compression ended in the 1970s. Wages stagnated, inflation raged, and by the decade's end, income inequality had started to rise. Income inequality grew through the 1980s, slackened briefly at the end of the 1990s, and then resumed with a vengeance in the aughts. In his 2007 book The Conscience of a Liberal, the Nobel laureate, Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman labeled the post-1979 epoch the "Great Divergence."

It's generally understood that we live in a time of growing income inequality, but "the ordinary person is not really aware of how big it is," Krugman told me. During the late 1980s and the late 1990s, the United States experienced two unprecedentedly long periods of sustained economic growth—the "seven fat years" and the " long boom." Yet from 1980 to 2005, more than 80 percent of total increase in Americans' income went to the top 1 percent. Economic growth was more sluggish in the aughts, but the decade saw productivity increase by about 20 percent. Yet virtually none of the increase translated into wage growth at middle and lower incomes, an outcome that left many economists scratching their heads.

That's banana republic time, and it's at the heart of everything that ails us. Without a strong and thriving middle class, we have an unstable society, one where very bad things can happen.

I'm fascinated by a visual presentation accompanying the article which shows that none of the things we might attribute to this phenomenon --- gender and racial equality, tax rates etc --- are born out by the numbers, at least not enough to explain it. At the very end of you'll see that it looks like he's going to say that it's almost all attributable to corporate influence in American politics. I'm looking forward to seeing how that has worked, if that's his thesis. Stay tuned.