Inequality: Then and Now (Short Note)

The latter half of the 20th century was a great time for American liberalism. Our big, but more or less market oriented, government – for the first time – used public policy as a means of substantially curbing inequality across the country. The story of postwar America was of the middle-class autoworker living a good life.

There are economic reasons to doubt that we’re reaching a crescendo in the era of increased polarization: skill-biased technological change being key among them. But the more pressing issue is social, political and, unfortunately, broadly unmentioned. Perhaps the ferment in economic structure due to automotive and other technology played an important role in creating the new middle-class.

However, it is indisputable that Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower era policies of very high taxes and public spending played an even more important role. Most Americans today cannot comprehend the extent to which the Federal Government was involved with economic life just two generations ago.

In a democratic society, this implied incredible political will to create progressive institutions. I have little doubt that if we wanted to, policy could cure inequality with a broad enough mandate – like that given to Roosevelt.

But this obscures something important. The Great Recession might have been the worst economic event in American history since the Great Depression. But it wasn’t the Great Depression. Living standards for the median and poor in America might be at their relative minimum since the Great Depression. But not their absolute minimum.

To understand the difference between then and now, citing GDP per capita is just not enough, because the mean blurs tail skews. In 1933, the average income for the bottom 90% was less than $7,000 dollars. In other words the average Chinese (who is very poor, by the way) lives much better today than most Americans did then.

The political will in a democratic society to vote to eat, be clothed, and provide for your children is very strong.

The equivalent figure today is over $30,000. Sure the rich today are unimaginably wealthier – but that doesn’t change the evaporation of fundamental want.

This is to say that we may never again see the political will from the country as a whole necessary to employ policy to curb inequality. This is to say that the Kuznets Curve for inequality in democracies might well be bimodal.

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1 comment
  1. ‘The story of postwar America was of the middle-class autoworker living a good life.

    ‘….However, it is indisputable that Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower era policies of very high taxes and public spending played an even more important role. Most Americans today cannot comprehend the extent to which the Federal Government was involved with economic life just two generations ago.’

    Here’s a novel proposal for you, talk to some Americans who actually lived in America back then, and see if any of them don’t laugh in your face when you tell them this.

    ‘Big government’ was mostly the military (10% of GDP during peacetime Eisenhower years). There was no Medicare or Medicaid, no 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, no EEOC, no racial bean-counting, almost no anti-discrimination legislation of any kind. Americans of the 1950s would be appalled at the intrusions intro their lives that youngsters like you take for granted now.

    Oh yeah, Communism was abhorred back then too.

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