The specific problems of the current U.S. economy—the drastic increase in unemployment and sluggish increase in output—overlay a tendency of much longer duration, a drastic and rapid increase in the inequality of income. Every economy of complexity produces an unequal distribution of the good things in life. But the period immediately following World War II showed a considerably increased equality of income compared with either the Great Depression or the previous period of relative prosperity.
Since the middle 1980s, this tendency has been reversed. In the United States, median family income (adjusted for size) has remained virtually constant since 1995, while per capita income has risen at about 2 percent per annum. The difference in income between college graduates and those with only high school degrees increased at a rapid rate, even during the period before 1990 when per capita income grew very slowly. Further, the proportion of the college-age population enrolled in college, which had been rising rapidly, stopped increasing and has remained the same for thirty years.
Clearly, the bulk of the gains from increased productivity went to a small group of upper-income recipients. Indeed, closer study has shown that the bulk of the increase went to the top 1 percent of income recipients and much of that to those in the top .1 percent.
The causes of this growing inequality are varied. There has been a steady attack on the use of the tax system as a means of equalizing income. Income and estate taxes were once the most directly effective factors in redistribution. The top rate in the federal income tax was over 90 percent in the 1950s and is about 35 percent today. The exemption level for estate taxes has risen steadily, ensuring that less and less can be taxed. On the other hand, the earned-income tax credit has actually permitted negative income taxes (payments by the government to the tax filer) at the lowest end.
Shifts in the composition of goods and services have reduced income opportunities for many. Skilled industrial jobs have disappeared, while growing information services require a different set of skills. This shift has undoubtedly been augmented by globalization, which has resulted in considerable imports of manufactured goods. The weakening of unions is in good measure attributable to the relative decline in manufacturing, where unionization is easier.
Contemporaneous with the decline of manufacturing has been the increase of two service industries, finance and health. Profits from the finance sector, which historically have been about 10 percent of all profits, have risen to an extraordinary 40 percent. The sector’s labor needs are, of course, directed in considerable measure to the best-educated.
A proper sense of responsibility has to be enforced by legislation.
The notion of a well-running market is applicable to manufactured goods; different items are produced to be alike and can be evaluated by consumers. But the products of the finance and health industries are individualized and complex. The consumer cannot seriously evaluate them—a situation that economists call “asymmetric information.”
This casts light on the claim that the problem is one of personal ethics, of greed. After all, the search for improvement in technology, and consequently in the general standards of living, is motivated by greed. When the market system works properly, greed is tempered by competition. Hence, most of the gains from innovation and good service cannot be retained by the providers.
But in situations of asymmetric information, the forces of competition are weakened. The individual patient or financial client does not have access to all the relevant information. Indeed, when the information is sufficiently complex, it may be impossible to provide adequate information.
In these circumstances, greed becomes more relevant. There arises an obligation to present the relevant information as fully as possible, an obligation that has been violated in the financial industry. In the medical field, this challenge has to a considerable extent been met historically by standards of proper practice. These may involve revelation of all information, or at least the requirement that differences in information not be exploited.
It is clear that the financial industry is well behind the medical in this respect. A proper sense of responsibility has to be enforced by legislation, as it was in the 1930s. There has been some erosion in the law, for example under the Clinton administration, and in enforcement. The Dodd-Frank law is a step in the right direction, but the influence of the financial industry watered it down and created unnecessary complications.
It is not superfluous to argue that steepening the income tax progression, removing a number of blatant loopholes, such as the special treatment of capital gains, and reducing the exemption level for estates would add considerably to post-tax equality.