By Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson
Could the steep rise in the share of income gains falling into the hands of the top one percent of Americans since the 1970s have been stopped, and will the rise stop in the near future? A newly revealed history of American growth and inequality suggests the answer is yes to both questions.* What is exceptional about recent American experience is that inequality has risen faster than in other rich countries. Furthermore, it has happened twice in our history – before the Civil War, and again since the 1970s. Without some exogenous crisis like revolution, war, and great depressions, does America have the political will to stop the widening of income gaps between the very rich and the rest?
How hard would it be to stop, or even reverse, the trend? The economics is easy. The politics may be harder. However, to make the policies politically acceptable, just follow a simple equality-growth rule: Make life chances more equal in a pro-growth manner. Prioritize those economic policies that have been shown to equalize people’s opportunities without doing any damage to the growth of our average incomes.
$100 bills lying on the sidewalk
Finding such win-win policies is easy. To see why it’s so easy, just remind yourself: Has our political system seized all the chances to make us richer and more equal at the same time? Of course not. Throughout American history politicians have failed to cash in on equitable growth opportunities, even though they are all around us like so many $100 bills left lying on the sidewalk.
Four easy win-win choices stand out when we compare our experience with that of other countries – and yes, the United States can learn positive lessons from other countries.
Early and basic education for all. The United States has slipped down the rankings in its delivery of early education since the 1960s. At the primary and secondary levels, other countries have caught up with us in years of school completed, and we rank about 27th among all tested countries in the quality of the math, science, and reading skills that students actually learn by age 15.
We are also below the OECD average in the enrollment of three- and four-year olds in early education-plus-care institutions, mainly because we are also below average in our commitment to both public and private funds in pre-primary education. A growing body of evidence shows high returns to early education. Providing it to all serves both equality and growth.
Investing in the careers of young parents with newborns. Our country lags behind all other developed countries in public support for parental work leave. We are failing to invest in both child development and mothers’ career continuity. All of society gains from the better nurturing of our children and the extra career continuity of their mothers, and all of society should help pay for parental leave, not shoving the whole burden onto the young parents or their employers. Other countries figured this out long ago.
Equal opportunity and the inheritance tax. We should return to the higher federal tax rates on top inheritances that we had in the past. This would force rich children receiving bequests to work harder, make Americans more equal, and, by leveling the playing field for new generations a bit, even promote economic growth. A return to a policy which dominated the twentieth century would deliver on the American claim that “in our country, individuals make their own way, with their own hard work and abilities.” To honor that claim, we should make sure that the top economic slots are not reserved for those born very rich. We have done it before. Our top rate of inheritance taxation was 77 percent from 1942 to 1977, years when American incomes grew at the fastest rate this country has ever attained. We haven’t achieved that growth performance since the policy was changed in the 1970s.
Taxing high inheritances is not anti-growth. Instead, it promotes productive work by those who would have inherited the top fortunes. Statistical studies have demonstrated the strength of the “Carnegie effect”. Carnegie was right: passing on huge inheritances undermines the heirs’ work incentives. We also need to stress that bigger inheritance taxes do not take income away from any living rich citizen who has earned it.
Riding herd on the financial sector. Since our Independence, the United States has been above average in its history of financial meltdowns. One could even say that America has been “exceptional” in that regard. Frequent bubbles, booms, and crashes have done great damage to our growth and our equality. The danger of future meltdowns remains, because the Dodd-Frank reforms of 2010 are weaker than the tougher regulatory reforms of the 1930s, which served us so well until the ill-advised de-regulation of the 1980s. More regulatory vigilance, government liquidation authority, and capital requirements are needed to prevent financial breakdowns that tax the non-rich to bail out the rich, and make the poor also pay by losing their jobs.
History is also clear on the inequality connection. When the financial sector was closely regulated in response to the Great Depression disaster, the incomes of the rich in the financial sector fell to more moderate levels. After de-regulation in the 1980s, incomes of the rich in the financial sector soared.
Picking up the easy money takes time – and votes
Implementing just these four win-win policies may or may not be enough to stop any trend toward more inequality, or to raise growth rates from their now-modest levels. We will have to push against a strong headwind coming from competition with poorer countries. Lower-skill jobs in this country will continue to suffer from the competition produced by the long-overdue catching up rise in Asian economies since the 1970s, and from Africa in the future. This new global competition is to be welcomed. There is no reason to wish that poor countries remain hobbled by the bad institutions that have impoverished them for so long. Yet the rising competition challenges the United States to continue to upgrade its own skills to keep ahead. All the more reason to upgrade our human capital.
It will take some time to do these things. Politicians and voters hate to wait for good results that are more than two years away. And such policies may face opposition from those who would not directly gain from such win-win policies.
Still, our democracy can achieve reforms that promote both growth and equality. We’ve done it before. We can do it again. That’s what elections are for.
* The findings reported here are substantiated in Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality since 1700 (Princeton University Press, 2016).
Peter H. Lindert is Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of California, Davis. His books include Growing Public: Social Spending and Economic Growth since the Eighteenth Century. He lives in Davis, California.
Jeffrey G. Williamson is the Laird Bell Professor of Economics, emeritus, at Harvard University. His books include Trade and Poverty: When the Third World Fell Behind. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Both are research associates at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Together they have written Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality Since 1700.