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Politics, Not Economics, Ultimately Drives Inequality

Listed author(s):
  • Jon D. Wisman

Over the past 40 years, inequality has exploded in the U.S. and significantly increased in virtually all nations. Why? The current debate typically identifies the causes as economic, due to some combination of technological change, globalization, inadequate education, demographics, and most recently, Piketty’s claim that it is the rate of return on capital exceeding the growth rate. But to the extent true, these are proximate causes. They all take place within a political framework in which they could in principle be neutralized or reversed. Indeed, this mistake is itself political. It masks the true cause of inequality and presents it as if natural, due to the forces of progress, just as in pre-modern times it was the will of gods. By examining three broad distributional changes in modern times, this article demonstrates the dynamics by which inequality is a political phenomenon through and through. It places special emphasis on the role played by ideology -- politics’ most powerful instrument -- in making inequality appear as necessary.

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File URL: http://www.american.edu/cas/economics/research/upload/2017-06.pdf
File Function: First version, 2017
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Paper provided by American University, Department of Economics in its series Working Papers with number 2017-06.

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Date of creation: 2017
Handle: RePEc:amu:wpaper:2017-06
Contact details of provider: Web page: http://www.american.edu/cas/economics/

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  1. William Easterly, 2002. "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262550423, July.
  2. Lindert, Peter H, 1986. "Unequal English Wealth since 1670," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 94(6), pages 1127-1162, December.
  3. Jon D. Wisman & James F. Smith, 2011. "Legitimating Inequality: Fooling Most of the People All of the Time," American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 70(4), pages 974-1013, October.
  4. Srinivasan, T.N., 1977. "Development, Poverty, and Basic Human Needs: Some Issues," Food Research Institute Studies, Stanford University, Food Research Institute, issue 02.
  5. Persson, Torsten & Tabellini, Guido, 1994. "Is Inequality Harmful for Growth?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(3), pages 600-621, June.
  6. Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson, 2000. "Why Did the West Extend the Franchise? Democracy, Inequality, and Growth in Historical Perspective," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 115(4), pages 1167-1199.
  7. Thomas Philippon & Ariell Reshef, 2012. "Wages and Human Capital in the U.S. Finance Industry: 1909--2006," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 127(4), pages 1551-1609.
  8. Bhashkar Mazumder, 2005. "Fortunate Sons: New Estimates of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States Using Social Security Earnings Data," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 87(2), pages 235-255, May.
  9. Robert Wade, 2012. "Why Has Income Inequality Remained on the Sidelines of Public Policy for So Long?," Challenge, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., vol. 55(3), pages 21-50, May.
  10. N. Gregory Mankiw, 2013. "Defending the One Percent," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 27(3), pages 21-34, Summer.
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