The Hourglass Society

Source: Stewart Lansley, Los Angeles Review of Books, May 28, 2013

Income inequality is now as high as it’s been since the Great Depression, and the middle class is nearly extinct…One of the most significant effects of America’s hourglass society has been the capping of opportunities and the emergence of downward mobility amongst the middle classes, a process that began well before the recession. Around 100 million Americans — a third of the population — live below or fractionally above the poverty level. A quarter of the American workforce end up in low—paid jobs, the highest rate across rich nations, while the wealthiest 400 Americans have the same combined wealth as the poorest half — over 150 million people….

….The most damaging impact of growing inequality has been on the American — and global — economy. It has been one of the central rules of market economics that inequality is good for growth and stability. The idea was enshrined in the postwar writings of the New Right critics of the model of managed capitalism that emerged after the war. “Inequality of wealth and incomes is the cause of the masses’ well being, not the cause of anybody’s distress” wrote the Austrian—American economist Ludwig von Mises, one of the leading prophets of the superiority of markets, in 1955.

It was a theory that gained traction during the global economic crisis of the 1970s and with the publication in 1975 of a highly influential book, Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff, by the late American mainstream economist Arthur Okun. This theory — that you can have either more equal societies or more economically successful ones, but not both — has been used to justify the growth of inequality in the United States, a trend that has since spread to a majority of the rich world. One of the telling by—products of the current economic crisis is that this theory is now being challenged. It is now being increasingly argued that the levels of income concentration in recent times have had a significant negative effect on the economy, bringing slower growth and greater turbulence and contributing to both the 2008 crash and the lack of a sustained recovery….