The Inequality Project*

 

Thomas Piketty and colleagues reinvigorated public discussion of inequality, and brought into the discussion a wider focus on the fundamental features of the global economy that contribute to growing inequality.  Their work is summarized each year in the World Inequality Report.  The link is to the 2018 online edition.  Here is a column by Thomas Edsall describing some more recent work by Piketty and other scholars.  It does a good job of describing the range of work on inequality.  One journalist who has kept up with the field is Eduardo Porto, with the New York Times.  Here is his last column in his Economic Scene slot. 

Here in the United States scholars of inequality have studied the links among a number of topics:

1.   the structure and trends in inequality

2.   the fiscal, monetary and regulatory policies governing economies

3.   the quality of neighborhoods and housing

4.   the quality of education opportunities

5.   social policies, including incomes and criminal justice

6.   political polarization.

 

#1:  The Structure and Trends in Inequality.  There is no one way to measure inequality.  We can look at wealth and/or income.  You have likely seen comparisons to the wealth held by the richest 1% or 0.01% of the population, compared to some chunk of the remaining people.  Another way is to look at quintiles or deciles and track trends over time.  Some ways of measuring inequality estimate low, some high, as indicated in this analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Rearch. 

#2:  The Fiscal, Monetary, and Regulatory Policies Governing Economies.  The rules matter.  Financial organizations, left to their own devices, tend to engage in practices that extract more money from lower income customers and richly reward company officials for the effective transfer of wealth.  Anti-union policies have lead to a stark increase in household insecurity. 

#3.  The Quality of Neighborhoods and Housing.  We should not forget that the Reagan Era of deregulation began with Reagan's run for the California governorship in 1966, a campaign energized in response to the California fair housing proposition of 1964.  Pervasive practices still, more than half a century later, result in real disadvantages in housing costs across the color line.  And we live in a time when the national government pursues policies that dramatically increase the housing costs of lower income families. 

#4:  The Quality of Education Opportunities.  Excellent schools are essential to intergenerational income mobility.  Yet we live in an era when states are persistently decreasing their support for public education.  It is more than a decade since Kozol's Shame of the Nation, and the trends have not improved in that time.  There are many education reforms that would make a large difference in student outcomes, such as investing in early childhood education. 

#5:  Social Policies, including Incomes and Criminal Justice.  In a nutshell, our prison system is a disaster that costs too much and delivers bad outcomes. 

#6:  Political Polarization.  One of the strongest relationships you will ever see in social science is the one between level of income inequality and level of political polarization.  (see numbered page 30 of the linked file)  Whenever we see a relationship that close, we must suspect we are looking from two sides at the very same thing. 

 

The newest and best analyses of inequality include most or all of these ideas.  A good example of an argument that links these factors is Peter Temin's The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy.  This review summarizes the argument.  Here is another example of policy advice that connects housing issues with poverty reduction. 

 

One possible consequence of explicitly including the color line in studies of inequality is that we look squarely at the issue of reparations.  The link is to the Ta-nehisi Coates piece in The Atlantic, from 2014.  Coates does not present a formula for distributing reparations, he makes the case they are warranted. An important part of his argument is that public policies up to the present time have deliberately excluded African Americans from full participation in the American dream.  This is not just about slavery.  Black and White health outcomes in the United States are significantly different, regardless of social status.  Talk of a post-racial society is simply wrong. 

 This brief summary of different positions on reparations (from the New York Times) is an illustration of what happens when people start talking about reparations.  Some restate the moral justification, some point to the obvious political and justice obstacles, some narrowly consider only reparations for slavery, and some find some limited practical policies we know how to enact. 

 

Several scholars and organizations share an interest in the many facets of inequality in the United States.  Among them are:

      The Economic Policy Institute.  It might be the first US think tank focused on low and middle income workers, and includes the range of issues noted above. 

      The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is another think tank, focused on reduction of poverty and inequality. 

      The Institute for New Economic Thinking, a collaboration of over 1,000 scholars around the world who are convinced that free market fundamentalism hurts growth and the human environment.  The focus is on more than just the USA. 

      The Washington Center for Equitable Growth is a mainstream research organization that supports studies of public policies that affect equality.  The link is to their blog, a good place to start.

      The Center for Economic and Policy Research has the goal of promoting democratic debate on economic and social issues.  You may know about the economists Dean Baker, Mark Weisbrot, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Solow, and Richard Freeman.  It focuses  mostly on the USA, but also looks at the Western hemisphere and global issues. 

      The Real-World Economics Review blog is done by authors published in the Real-World Economics Review.  The contributors come from many schools of thought, but all are harshly critical about the mainstream of the economics profession. 

      The Equality of Opportunity Project studies education, neighborhoods, and health with the goal of creating policy solutions to poverty. 

 

 

* Sid Olufs put this together, 2018, all rights reserved.  Students of inequality may link this page in their own work.