January 15, 2013
“Earlier this month, Larry Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, stood at a lectern in a small hotel conference room in San Diego and fiddled with a computer until his PowerPoint presentation flashed on the screen. Mishel then composed himself, paid tribute to his intellectual opponent sitting in the front row and began a speech that, he hopes, will reorient the U.S. economy away from the 1 percent or the 0.1 percent and toward the rest of us.
Mishel’s session at this year’s meeting of the American Economic Association, titled “Inequality in America,” tellingly coincided with other sessions called “Extreme Wage Inequality” and “Taxes, Transfers and Inequality.” As the financial crisis wanes, economists are shifting their attention toward a more subtle, possibly more upsetting crisis in the United States: the significant increase in income inequality.
Much of what we consider the American way of life is rooted in the period of remarkably broad, shared economic growth, from around 1900 to about 1978. Back then, each generation of Americans did better than the one that preceded it. Even those who lived through the Depression made up what was lost. By the 1950s, America had entered an era that economists call the Great Compression, in which workers — through unions and Social Security, among other factors — captured a solid share of the economy’s growth.
These days, there’s a lot of disagreement about what actually happened during these years. Was it a golden age in which the U.S. government guided an economy toward fairness? Or was it a period defined by high taxes (until the early ’60s, the top marginal tax rate was 90 percent) and bureaucratic meddling? Either way, the Great Compression gave way to a Great Divergence. Since 1979, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the bottom 80 percent of American families had their share of the country’s income fall, while the top 20 percent had modest gains. Of course, the top 1 percent — and, more so, the top 0.1 percent — has seen income rise stratospherically. That tiny elite takes in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income and controls nearly half its wealth.
The standard explanation of this unhinging, repeated in graduate-school classrooms and in advice to politicians, is technological change. The rise of networked laptops and smartphones and their countless iterations and spawn have helped highly educated professionals create more and more value just as they have created barriers to entry and rendered irrelevant millions of less-educated workers, in places like factory production lines and typing pools. This explanation, known as skill-biased technical change, is so common that economists just call it S.B.T.C. They use it to explain why everyone from the extremely rich to the just-kind-of rich are doing so much better than everyone else.
For two decades, Mishel has been a critic of the S.B.T.C. theory, and that morning in San Diego, he argued that broad technological innovation has been taking place so steadily for so long that the rise of computers simply can’t explain the recent explosion in inequality. After all, when economists talk about technological innovation, they are thinking beyond smartphones; they’re usually considering innovations that affect production. Business innovations — like the railroads, telegraph, Henry Ford’s conveyor belt and the plastic extruders of the 1960s — have occurred for more than a century. Computers and the Internet, Mishel argued, are just new examples on the continuum and cannot explain a development like extreme inequality, which is so recent. So what happened?
The change came around 1978, Mishel said, when politicians from both parties began to think of America as a nation of consumers, not of workers. President Jimmy Carter deregulated the airline, trucking and railroad industries in order to help lower consumer prices. Congress chose to ignore organized labor’s call for laws strengthening union protections. Ever since, Mishel said, each administration and Congress have made choices — expanding trade, deregulating finance and weakening welfare — that helped the rich and hurt everyone else. Inequality didn’t just happen, Mishel argued. The government created it.
After Mishel finished his presentation, David Autor, one of the country’s most celebrated labor economists, took the stage, fumbled for his own PowerPoint presentation and then explained that there was plenty of evidence showing that technological change explained a great deal about the rise of income inequality. Computers, Autor says, are fundamentally different. Conveyor belts and massive steel furnaces made blue-collar workers comparatively wealthier and hurt more highly skilled craftspeople, like blacksmiths and master carpenters, whose talents were disrupted by mass production. The computer revolution, however, displaced millions of workers from clerical and production occupations, forcing them to compete in lower-paying jobs in the retail, fast-food and home health sectors. Meanwhile, computers and the Internet disproportionately helped people like doctors, engineers and bankers in information-intensive jobs. Inequality was merely a side effect of the digital revolution, Autor said; it didn’t begin and end in Washington.
For all their disagreements, Autor and Mishel are allies of sorts. Both are Democrats who have advised President Barack Obama, and both agree that rampant inequality can undermine democracy and economic growth by fostering despair among workers and corruption among the wealthy. This places them in opposition to some right-leaning economists like Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize-winning professor at the University of Chicago, who told me a few years ago that “inequality in earnings has been mainly the good kind,” meaning it rewards those people with the education and skills most needed, helping the economy.
How are we to make sense of these competing claims? I asked Frank Levy, the M.I.T. labor economist who hasn’t fully committed to any one particular view. Levy suggested seeing how inequality has played out in other countries. In Germany, the average worker might make less than an American, but the government has established an impressive apprenticeship system to keep blue-collar workers’ skills competitive. For decades, the Finnish government has offered free education all the way through college. It may have led to high taxes, but many believe it also turned a fairly poor fishing economy into a high-income, technological nation. On the other hand, Greece, Spain and Portugal have so thoroughly protected their workers that they are increasingly unable to compete in the global economy.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a sort of global club for the world’s richest nations, has carefully studied the relationship between inequality and growth. The fastest-growing industrialized economies (South Korea, Estonia and Poland) have remarkably low inequality. A few low-growth countries (notably Mexico and Turkey) have high inequality. The rest of the world is all over the place, with no obvious connection between a country’s level of inequality and its economic growth.
Yet the scattershot nature of the data does provide some guidance. Inequality has risen almost everywhere, which, Levy says, means that Autor is right that inequality is not just a result of American-government decisions. But the fact that inequality has risen unusually quickly in the United States suggests that government does have an impact. Still, economists certainly cannot tell us which policy is the right one. What do we value more: growth or fairness? That’s a value judgment. And for better or worse, it’s up to us.