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Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

One of the most viewed posts on this blog is a 2010 essay titled “A Christian America?: What History Shows.” It addresses the question of whether this nation was born Christian. What history shows is that most Americans at the time of the Revolution were “unchurched” and not much theologically Christian (more superstitious than religious). The evangelical movements of the 19th century Christianized America.

But there is another way to pose the question, “A Christian America?” How Christian are Americans today compared to people in peer nations–in other western, affluent, nominally Christian countries? In one sense, we are the most Christian people, but in another sense, the least. It’s about talking the talk and walking the walk.

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In October, the New York Times ran a story comparing how older large corporations–the recently bankrupted Sears, in particular–were more generous to their lower-rung employees than are the newer ones–Amazon, in particular. Sears (the Amazon of its day) had offered more in wages, benefits, and stock options. The Times story failed to point out the important, and invisible to most Americans, sea change in business that fostered such differences: the triumph of “shareholder value.”

Shareholder value is the doctrine that officials of a publicly-held corporation must focus on maximizing the value of its shares rather than act in the interests of workers, suppliers, customers, the local community, society at large, the environment, themselves as managers, or the corporation itself. The ascendancy of this guiding principle since about 1970s has boosted inequality by making investors and management much wealthier and by weakening workers and localities. Dealing with this idea is one of the challenges facing those who seek to reverse growing inequality.

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Reversing American Voluntarism

Current events suggest that the progress in American social history, recently stalled, is now being turned around.

The long-run story of the American people is of the slow, swerving, incomplete, but steady expansion of participation in its voluntaristic culture. As told in Made in America, once-dependent and subordinate categories of people–women, immigrants, employees, the propertyless and the poor, ex-slaves, youth, the very elderly–have been able over the last three centuries to become more autonomous authors of their own lives, able act both independently for themselves and freely in concert with whomever they wished to join.

This extension of independence with community depended largely on the expansion of security–security of life, of fortune, of an assured future. And that, in turn, rested on economic growth, scientific advance, and critically, government protection against life’s perils–institutions of law and order, public education, public health, disaster relief, unemployment insurance, old age pensions, and much more.

The last few decades have seen a slowdown in the underlying processes that had expanded voluntarism. The economic fortunes of working class Americans stagnated. Many both experience and anticipate a life less assured than that of their parents. Science keeps delivering, but neither the economy nor the government are currently sustaining the actual security and the sense of security that enable forceful individual and community action.

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“It’s easier to find a denier of global warming than of rising inequality,” quips economist Jared Bernstein. Maybe. But arguments over defining, describing, and deciphering the sources and consequences of that inequality—not to mention whether and how to deal with it—remain highly contested. Most Americans believe, like Bernstein, that inequality has grown. Two to one they consider its extent “unfair,” rate it an important voting issue, and wish that something would be done about it, including taxing the rich. And, although most say that they are satisfied with Americans’ opportunities to “get ahead,” they have become less sure of that since the turn of the century.

What Americans seem to really care about, though, is not inequality per se but what it means for inequality of economic opportunity. Americans care about people getting their “just rewards.” Some, those in the Paul Ryan school, profess to care about poverty and middle-class struggles, but still take no issue with inequality of outcomes. In other words, it is not about the gap. If everyone were getting richer, why would it matter if the rich did so fastest? And conversely, if everyone were getting poorer, would a shrinking gap be any consolation? For many scholars, however, the issue is precisely the gap, because it itself has consequences. It may well be, for example, that inequality of outcomes undermines equality of opportunity, as many Americans fear. In this essay, I examine the recent research on growing inequality, whether inequality is itself harmful, and what might be done to counteract some of its effects.  See the rest of this column at the Boston Review, here.

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Voting for the Five Percent

“Why don’t working class voters vote their economic interests?” has been a perennial question for generations of academics. (One might also ask why full professors don’t vote their interests–for tax-cutting conservatives.) Part of the problem in addressing the question is knowing whether the premise is correct. When unemployed coal miners or WalMart greeters vote Republican, are they really voting against their economic interests? For the most part, they would deny that they are.

An article appearing last summer in the Journal of Politics adds some hard numbers to that discussion. Timothy Hicks, Alan M. Jacobs, and J. Scott Matthews report findings suggesting that in many countries, particularly in the United States, not only do working-class voters seem to not vote for self-declared working-class parties in the numbers observers would expect, they actually tend to vote for incumbents who have overseen greater gains for wealthy than for average families.

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Does Education Work?

Just about everyone from left to right believes in the power of more education for more Americans, that more education for all will open up opportunity, raise standards of living, and reduce economic inequality. Some scholars, however, are skeptical.

They have at least three related arguments. One is that the content of education–perhaps beyond basic literacy and skills– does not matter for individuals’ economic attainment, that what matters is the person’s relative level of education. When few people have graduated high school, doing so will make a big difference, but when most people have a high school diploma, then real success then requires going to college. Employers just up their requirements as educational attainment spreads, so what is important is being ahead of the pack.

Another argument is that educational degrees just signal or “credential” people with talent, people who would have succeeded with or without the extra classwork. More degrees for more people will not change that.

A third argument is that advantaged families find ways to pass on advantage to their children even as education becomes more widespread. They do that by supporting their sons’ and daughters’ attainment of yet further, more exclusive schooling, maintaining leads over those from less advantaged backgrounds and thus maintaining the inheritance of inequality (see, e.g., here).

A just-published article takes a look at what happened to equality and social mobility in the United States when a major educational reform swept through the nation in the nineteenth century: compulsory schooling. (more…)

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The increasing delay of death for Americans over the last century or so has been extensive and consequential, probably in many profound ways that we do not fully appreciate. In the late 19th century, a newborn white boy would be expected to live, on average, to about 40; now, such a newborn can be expected to live into his late 70s. A ten-year-old then could expect to reach his late 50s and a ten-year-old can now expect to reach his mid-70s. Girls live longer and nonwhites shorter lives, but the trends have been dramatically upward for them, as well. Moreover, Americans’ health, while they lived, also improved markedly.

How did this happen? Historians have excavated old health records and applied new techniques to parse out why better health and lower mortality occurred. In a just-published review of the topic, appearing in the Journal of Economic Literature, UCLA economic historian Dora Costa describes how the United States extended its people’s lives in different ways in different eras, depending in part on the nature of the health threat and on public will.

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