Slate: A historical look at Income Inequality in the U.S.

A new series on income inequality in the U.S. is starting in Slate, and it’s excellent. I hope to write more about it as time goes on, but this will get you started.


From the intro, Timothy Noah (my emphasis):

In 1915, a statistician at the University of Wisconsin named Willford I. King published The Wealth and Income of the People of the United States, the most comprehensive study of its kind to date. The United States was displacing Great Britain as the world’s wealthiest nation, but detailed information about its economy was not yet readily available; the federal government wouldn’t start collecting such data in any systematic way until the 1930s [pdf]. One of King’s purposes was to reassure the public that all Americans were sharing in the country’s newfound wealth.

King was somewhat troubled to find that the richest 1 percent possessed about 15 percent of the nation’s income. (A more authoritative subsequent calculation puts the figure slightly higher, at about 18 percent. [pdf])

This was the era in which the accumulated wealth of America’s richest families—the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies—helped prompt creation of the modern income tax, lest disparities in wealth turn the United States into a European-style aristocracy. The socialist movement was at its historic peak, a wave of anarchist bombings was terrorizing the nation’s industrialists, and President Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, Alexander Palmer, would soon stage brutal raids on radicals of every stripe. In American history, there has never been a time when class warfare seemed more imminent.

That was when the richest 1 percent accounted for 18 percent of the nation’s income. Today, the richest 1 percent account for 24 percent [pdf] of the nation’s income. What caused this to happen? Over the next two weeks, I’ll try to answer that question by looking at all potential explanations—race, gender, the computer revolution, immigration, trade, government policies, the decline of labor, compensation policies on Wall Street and in executive suites, and education. Then I’ll explain why people who say we don’t need to worry about income inequality (there aren’t many of them) are wrong.

If I sussed the code right, you can see the embedded slide show by clicking here. It looks like three parts are already posted. I’m really looking forward to the whole thing.

(Hmm. From the chart, the divergence really gets going in the early 1980s. Wonder what happened in the early ’80s? Could it have been those Reagan tax cuts? Stay tuned.)

GP


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States. Click here for more. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius and Facebook.

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