How to Shrink Inequality
Between the end of World War II and the early 1970s, the median wage grew in tandem with productivity. Both roughly doubled in those years, adjusted for inflation. But after the 1970s, productivity continued to rise at roughly the same pace as before, while wages began to flatten. In part, this was due to the twin forces of globalization and labor-replacing technologies that began to hit the American workforce like strong winds—accelerating into massive storms in the 1980s and ’90s, and hurricanes since then.
Containers, satellite communication technologies, and cargo ships and planes radically reduced the cost of producing goods anywhere around the globe, thereby eliminating many manufacturing jobs or putting downward pressure on other wages. Automation, followed by computers, software, robotics, computer-controlled machine tools and widespread digitization, further eroded jobs and wages. These forces simultaneously undermined organized labor. Unionized companies faced increasing competitive pressures to outsource, automate or move to nonunion states.
These forces didn’t erode all incomes, however. In fact, they added to the value of complex work done by those who were well educated, well connected and fortunate enough to have chosen the right professions. Those lucky few who were perceived to be the most valuable saw their pay skyrocket.
But that’s only part of the story. Instead of responding to these gale-force winds with policies designed to upgrade the skills of Americans, modernize our infrastructure, strengthen our safety net and adapt the workforce—and pay for much of this with higher taxes on the wealthy—we did the reverse. We began disinvesting in education, job training and infrastructure. We began shredding our safety net. We made it harder for many Americans to join unions. (The decline in unionization directly correlates with the decline of the portion of income going to the middle class.) And we reduced taxes on the wealthy.
We also deregulated. Financial deregulation in particular made finance the most lucrative industry in America, as it had been in the 1920s. Here again, the parallels between the 1920s and recent years are striking, reflecting the same pattern of inequality.
Other advanced economies have faced the same gale-force winds but have not suffered the same inequalities as we have because they have helped their workforces adapt to the new economic realities—leaving the United States the most unequal of all advanced nations by far.
What We Must Do
There is no single solution for reversing widening inequality. French economist Thomas Piketty has shown that rich nations are moving back toward the large wealth disparities that characterized the late nineteenth century, as the return on capital exceeds the rate of economic growth. His monumental book Capital in the Twenty-First Century paints a troubling picture of societies dominated by a comparative few, whose cumulative wealth and unearned income overshadow the majority who rely on jobs and earned income. But our future is not set in stone, and Piketty’s description of past and current trends need not determine our path in the future. Here are ten initiatives that could reverse the trends described above:
1) Make work pay. The fastest-growing categories of work are retail, restaurant (including fast food), hospital (especially orderlies and staff), hotel, childcare and eldercare. But these jobs tend to pay very little. A first step toward making work pay is to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, pegging it to inflation; abolish the tipped minimum wage; and expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. No American who works full time should be in poverty.
2) Unionize low-wage workers. The rise and fall of the American middle class correlates almost exactly with the rise and fall of private-sector unions, because unions gave the middle class the bargaining power it needed to secure a fair share of the gains from economic growth. We need to reinvigorate unions, beginning with low-wage service occupations that are sheltered from global competition and from labor-replacing technologies. Lower-wage Americans deserve more bargaining power.
3) Invest in education. This investment should extend from early childhood through world-class primary and secondary schools, affordable public higher education, good technical education and lifelong learning. Education should not be thought of as a private investment; it is a public good that helps both individuals and the economy. Yet for too many Americans, high-quality education is unaffordable and unattainable. Every American should have an equal opportunity to make the most of herself or himself. High-quality education should be freely available to all, starting at the age of 3 and extending through four years of university or technical education.
4) Invest in infrastructure. Many working Americans—especially those on the lower rungs of the income ladder—are hobbled by an obsolete infrastructure that generates long commutes to work, excessively high home and rental prices, inadequate Internet access, insufficient power and water sources, and unnecessary environmental degradation. Every American should have access to an infrastructure suitable to the richest nation in the world.
5) Pay for these investments with higher taxes on the wealthy. Between the end of World War II and 1981 (when the wealthiest were getting paid a far lower share of total national income), the highest marginal federal income tax rate never fell below 70 percent, and the effective rate (including tax deductions and credits) hovered around 50 percent. But with Ronald Reagan’s tax cut of 1981, followed by George W. Bush’s tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the taxes on top incomes were slashed, and tax loopholes favoring the wealthy were widened. The implicit promise—sometimes made explicit—was that the benefits from such cuts would trickle down to the broad middle class and even to the poor. As I’ve shown, however, nothing trickled down. At a time in American history when the after-tax incomes of the wealthy continue to soar, while median household incomes are falling, and when we must invest far more in education and infrastructure, it seems appropriate to raise the top marginal tax rate and close tax loopholes that disproportionately favor the wealthy.