The Political Roots of Widening Inequality: For the past quarter-century I’ve offered in articles, books, and lectures an explanation for why average working people in advanced nations like the United States have failed to gain ground and are under increasing economic stress: Put simply, globalization and technological change have made most of us less competitive. The tasks we used to do can now be done more cheaply by lower-paid workers abroad or by computer-driven machines.
My solution—and I’m hardly alone in suggesting this—has been an activist government that raises taxes on the wealthy, invests the proceeds in excellent schools and other means people need to become more productive, and redistributes to the needy. These recommendations have been vigorously opposed by those who believe the economy will function better for everyone if government is smaller and if taxes and redistributions are curtailed.
While the explanation I offered a quarter-century ago for what has happened is still relevant—indeed, it has become the standard, widely accepted explanation—I’ve come to believe it overlooks a critically important phenomenon: the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs. And the governmental solutions I have propounded, while I believe them still useful, are in some ways beside the point because they take insufficient account of the government’s more basic role in setting the rules of the economic game.
Worse yet, the ensuing debate over the merits of the “free market” versus an activist government has diverted attention from how the market has come to be organized differently from the way it was a half-century ago, why its current organization is failing to deliver the widely shared prosperity it delivered then, and what the basic rules of the market should be. It has allowed America to cling to the meritocratic tautology that individuals are paid what they’re “worth” in the market, without examining the legal and political institutions that define the market. The tautology is easily confused for a moral claim that people deserve what they are paid. Yet this claim has meaning only if the legal and political institutions defining the market are morally justifiable. ...
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