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In his New York Times Magazine column this week, Adam Davidson looks at economists' explanations for rising inequality in the U.S. and around the world.
As the financial crisis wanes, economists are shifting their attention toward a more subtle, possibly more upsetting crisis in the United States: the significant increase in income inequality.
Much of what we consider the American way of life is rooted in the period of remarkably broad, shared economic growth, from around 1900 to about 1978. Back then, each generation of Americans did better than the one that preceded it. Even those who lived through the Depression made up what was lost. By the 1950s, America had entered an era that economists call the Great Compression, in which workers — through unions and Social Security, among other factors — captured a solid share of the economy's growth.
These days, there's a lot of disagreement about what actually happened during these years. Was it a golden age in which the U.S. government guided an economy toward fairness? Or was it a period defined by high taxes (until the early '60s, the top marginal tax rate was 90 percent) and bureaucratic meddling? Either way, the Great Compression gave way to a Great Divergence. Since 1979, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the bottom 80 percent of American families had their share of the country's income fall, while the top 20 percent had modest gains. Of course, the top 1 percent — and, more so, the top 0.1 percent — has seen income rise stratospherically. That tiny elite takes in nearly a quarter of the nation's income and controls nearly half its wealth.