In the fall of 2011, Janet Gornick, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, went down to Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park to join Occupy Wall Street. For the past two decades, Gornick had been working at the Luxembourg Income Study, an organization with a branch in New York City that amasses data sets on income and wealth disparities around the world. Gornick knew from her work that economic inequality had long been a subject of scholarly inquiry. “There were hundreds of working papers assessing its causes, looking at how welfare states mitigate market-driven inequality, and so on,” she recalls. But for most of her tenure at the LIS, the study of inequality was still a niche field, and an academic one at that. Save for a handful of economists and sociologists, the growing gap between rich and poor wasn’t keeping a lot of scholars up at night. As long as the economy was growing, most analysts in wealthy countries figured everyone would eventually end up better off.
This isn’t to say that no one was paying attention. The late economist Tony Atkinson—the British “godfather” of inequality studies, according to Gornick—had written extensively on how and why societies grow unequal. But for decades, Atkinson was an outlier, someone shouting in the dark. Inequality was also passionately debated in philosophy departments after the publication of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971, but that conversation tended to center on highly theoretical notions of how much inequality a society could reasonably tolerate—not popular demands to rein in the earnings of the 1 percent.
After the crash of 2008, the language of inequality began to trickle into the popular discourse. Then the Occupy movement launched it into the mainstream; the fall of 2011 was the first time in generations that concerns about distributive justice drove crowds into the streets and made front-page news. Scholars, pundits, and politicians all took note, and before long, Gornick and her colleagues found themselves at the center of what President Barack Obama called “the defining challenge of our time.” Reporting from a gathering at the Brookings Institution in late 2012, the journalist Chrystia Freeland (now Canada’s minister of foreign affairs) observed: “Three decades later, trickle-down economics”—the theory that slashing taxes on businesses and the rich would spur investment and eventually benefit society as a whole—“has met its antithesis. We are set for one of the great battles of ideas of our time.”
Even the International Monetary Fund, which for decades has imposed privatization and austerity programs on nations as the price of its financial aid, began to sound repentant. In 2013, IMF head Christine Lagarde conceded at Davos, of all places, that “the economics profession and the policy community have downplayed inequality for too long,” and that “a more equal distribution of income allows for more economic stability, more sustained economic growth, and healthier societies.”