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Friday, August 30, 2013

'Economic Equality, 1774 and Beyond'

Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer on how the US became known as the land of economic equality and opportunity:

Economic equality, 1774 and beyond: ... Writing in the current Journal of Economic History, Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson ... put together a picture of Americans’ incomes before and after the Revolution (gated here; earlier pdf version here.). By interconnecting complex varieties of data, they are able to estimate incomes and standards of living in American households in 1774 and in 1800. ...
Incomes were more equally distributed across households in 1774 America than they were elsewhere. Lindert and Williamson ... show that American income was notably less concentrated at the top and more equally shared in the middle. ... And this was equality at a high level of income. Except for those at the very top, colonists at every rank of the economic ladder (including slaves) made more than did the English at those same ranks.
Thus, when America gained the reputation centuries ago that it was the land of economic opportunity and economic equality, that reputation was based on reality. We must underline, of course, that this was opportunity and equality for free heads of households, i.e., largely white men. Equality across households does not take into account inequality within households, which is where much of early American inequality rested: between the male heads and the women of the household; between the masters and the household servants, apprentices, farm hands, and of course, slaves. That is another equality story altogether (told, e.g., here).
America’s egalitarian reputation has now been tarnished. Other western nations have in recent generations attained greater income equality across households than the United States. ...
History as we remember it hangs heavily over our national discussions today. The memory of American egalitarianism so long ago — “Equality forever” says the stamp — too often makes us think that we are still the beacon of equal opportunity and thus too often undermines our efforts to realize that equality once again.

    Posted by on Friday, August 30, 2013 at 10:35 AM in Economics, Income Distribution | Permalink  Comments (9)


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