The United States of Inequality
Timothy Noah kicked off this series by looking at whether race, gender, or the breakdown of the nuclear family affected income inequality, and then he examined immigration, the technology boom, federal government policy, the decline of labor unions, international trade, whether the ultra wealthy are to blame, and what role the decline of K-12 education has played. In conclusion, Noah explained why we can’t ignore income inequality. Want to print this? The series is also available as a PDF.
In 1915, a statistician at the University of Wisconsin named Willford I. King published The Wealth and Income of the People of the United States, the most comprehensive study of its kind to date. The United States was displacing Great Britain as the world’s wealthiest nation, but detailed information about its economy was not yet readily available; the federal government wouldn’t start collecting such data in any systematic way until the 1930s. One of King’s purposes was to reassure the public that all Americans were sharing in the country’s newfound wealth.
King was somewhat troubled to find that the richest 1 percent possessed about 15 percent of the nation’s income. (A more authoritative subsequent calculation puts the figure slightly higher, at about 18 percent.)
This was the era in which the accumulated wealth of America’s richest families—the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies—helped prompt creation of the modern income tax, lest disparities in wealth turn the United States into a European-style aristocracy. The socialist movement was at its historic peak, a wave of anarchist bombings was terrorizing the nation’s industrialists, and President Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, Alexander Palmer, would soon stage brutal raids on radicals of every stripe. In American history, there has never been a time when class warfare seemed more imminent.
That 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.
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 distributionremained 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.
Here is a snapshot of income distribution during the past 100 years:
Why don’t Americans pay more attention to growing income disparity? One reason may be our enduring belief in social mobility. Economic inequality is less troubling if you live in a country where any child, no matter how humble his or her origins, can grow up to be president. In a survey of 27 nations conducted from 1998 to 2001, the country where the highest proportion agreed with the statement “people are rewarded for intelligence and skill” was, of course, the United States. (69 percent). But when it comes toreal as opposed to imagined social mobility, surveys find less in the United States than in much of (what we consider) the class-bound Old World. France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Spain—not to mention some newer nations like Canada and Australia—are all places where your chances of rising from the bottom are better than they are in the land of Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick.