In a recent newsletter, Paul Krugman referenced a 1991 economics paper in glowing terms. He said that he’s read many economics papers during his career, but very few that changed the way he sees the world.
This one, evidently, did.
Krugman began his discussion by reminiscing; as a Baby Boomer, he’d grown up at a time when extremes of wealth and poverty were far less pronounced than they are these days–a time when middle managers and better-paid blue-collar workers were more or less financial equals. It was a time, as he reminds us, when C.E.O.s of major companies were paid “around 20 times as much as the average worker, compared with more than 200 to 1 today.”
Although female and Black workers certainly weren’t equal, the extremes of wealth we see today–the enormous gap between the rich and the rest– were inconceivable, and the middle class was substantial. (I still remember a long-ago political science class that attributed national stability to the existence of a sizable middle-class, among other things.)
And we took it for granted. A more or less middle-class society, almost everyone assumed, was the state toward which an advanced economy naturally evolved.
Not so much, we learned as the boomers turned middle-aged. The future of inequality wasn’t what we expected it to be; America today has more or less returned to Gilded Age disparities in income and wealth.
The question, of course, is “why did this happen? Why isn’t the future of inequality what we expected?
The paper he was praising–“The Great Compression”– was written by Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo, and it showed that, as Krugman put it, America had gone to bed in 1939 in the Gilded Age and woke up in 1945 as the middle-class nation of his childhood, where wages were–as the paper labeled them–“compressed.”
Some of the reasons for that compression of wages are obvious: World War II required a controlled economy. Wage increases were regulated– and the rules tended to be more generous to less well-paid workers. But those rules, and the economic controls, were lifted after the war.
Why didn’t things spring back to where they had been before once wage and price controls had been lifted?
One answer, as Krugman demonstrates, was the emergence of unions.
A strong union movement, it seems, was able to lock in the new wage norms created by the war for several decades after the war was over. And the rise of unions was clearly linked to politics: first the New Deal, then the war, created favorable environments for union organizing.
Another important element was public policy. Policy, as Krugman and many other economists can attest, can shape a fairer, flatter, more inclusive economy.
What does this tell us about the future of inequality? On one side, it’s encouraging: high inequality isn’t something unavoidable, the necessary consequence of implacable technological forces: political action can create a much less unequal society. On the other side, both the politics of the New Deal and, even more so, the policy environment of World War II, were pretty unique. Progressives are, in general, delighted with how activist the Biden administration is proving; but despite Republican cries of “socialism,” its actions are far more modest than what happened in the ’30s and ’40s.
The big question is how much of the Great Compression we can achieve through less dramatic policies, in a political environment where spending one percent of G.D.P. on infrastructure seems radical. No, I don’t know the answer.
Our ability to fashion public policies that reinvigorate and regrow that all-important, stabilizing middle class depends significantly on a widespread recognition of the economic reality that everyone does better when everyone does better.
Even the most creative entrepreneur cannot innovate and profit in the absence of a supportive physical and social infrastructure and enough people with the wherewithal to pay for his product.