“The America I grew up in was a relatively equal middle-class society. Over the past generation, however, the country has returned to Gilded Age levels of inequality.” So sighs Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize–winning Princeton economist and New York Times columnist, in his recent book The Conscience of a Liberal.
The sentiment is nothing new. Political progressives such as Krugman have been decrying increases in income inequality for many years now. But Krugman has added a novel twist, one that has important implications for public policy and economic discourse in the age of Obama. In seeking explanations for the widening spread of incomes during the last four decades, researchers have focused overwhelmingly on broad structural changes in the economy, such as technological progress and demographic shifts. Krugman argues that these explanations are insufficient. “Since the 1970s,” he writes, “norms and institutions in the United States have changed in ways that either encouraged or permitted sharply higher inequality. Where, however, did the change in norms and institutions come from? The answer appears to be politics.”
To understand Krugman’s argument, we can’t start in the 1970s. We have to back up to the 1930s and ’40s—when, he contends, the “norms and institutions” that shaped a more egalitarian society were created. “The middle-class America of my youth,” Krugman writes, “is best thought of not as the normal state of our society, but as an interregnum between Gilded Ages. America before 1930 was a society in which a small number of very rich people controlled a large share of the nation’s wealth.” But then came the twin convulsions of the Great Depression and World War II, and the country that arose out of those trials was a very different place. “Middle-class America didn’t emerge by accident. It was created by what has been called the Great Compression of incomes that took place during World War II, and sustained for a generation by social norms that favored equality, strong labor unions and progressive taxation.”
The Great Compression is a term coined by the economists Claudia Goldin of Harvard and Robert Margo of Boston University to describe the dramatic narrowing of the nation’s wage structure during the 1940s. The real wages of manufacturing workers jumped 67 percent between 1929 and 1947, while the top 1 percent of earners saw a 17 percent drop in real income. These egalitarian trends can be attributed to the exceptional circumstances of the period: precipitous declines at the top end of the income spectrum due to economic cataclysm; wartime wage controls that tended to compress wage rates; rapid growth in the demand for low-skilled labor, combined with the labor shortages of the war years; and rapid growth in the relative supply of skilled workers due to a near doubling of high school graduation rates.
Yet the return to peacetime and prosperity did not result in a shift back toward the status quo ante. The more egalitarian income structure persisted for decades. For an explanation, Krugman leans heavily on a 2007 paper by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists Frank Levy and Peter Temin, who argue that postwar American history has been a tale of two widely divergent systems of political economy. First came the “Treaty of Detroit,” characterized by heavy unionization of industry, steeply progressive taxation, and a high minimum wage. Under that system, median wages kept pace with the economy’s overall productivity growth, and incomes at the lower end of the scale grew faster than those at the top. Beginning around 1980, though, the Treaty of Detroit gave way to the free market “Washington Consensus.” Tax rates on high earners fell sharply, the real value of the minimum wage declined, and private-sector unionism collapsed. As a result, most workers’ incomes failed to share in overall productivity gains while the highest earners had a field day.
This revisionist account of the fall and rise of income inequality is being echoed daily in today’s public policy debates. Under the conventional view, rising inequality is a side effect of economic progress—namely, continuing technological breakthroughs, especially in communications and information technology. Consequently, when economists have supported measures to remedy inequality, they have typically shied away from structural changes in market institutions. Rather, they have endorsed more income redistribution to reduce post-tax income differences, along with remedial education, job retraining, and other programs designed to raise the skill levels of lower-paid workers.
By contrast, Krugman sees the rise of inequality as a consequence of economic regress—in particular, the abandonment of well-designed economic institutions and healthy social norms that promoted widely shared prosperity. Such an assessment leads to the conclusion that we ought to revive the institutions and norms of Paul Krugman’s boyhood, in broad spirit if not in every detail.
There is good evidence that changes in economic policies and social norms have indeed contributed to a widening of the income distribution since the 1970s. But Krugman and other practitioners of nostalgianomics are presenting a highly selective account of what the relevant policies and norms were and how they changed.
The Treaty of Detroit was built on extensive cartelization of markets, limiting competition to favor producers over consumers. The restrictions on competition were buttressed by racial prejudice, sexual discrimination, and postwar conformism, which combined to limit the choices available to workers and potential workers alike. Those illiberal social norms were finally swept aside in the cultural tumults of the 1960s and ’70s. And then, in the 1970s and ’80s, restraints on competition were substantially reduced as well, to the applause of economists across the ideological spectrum. At least until now.
The economic system that emerged from the New Deal and World War II was markedly different from the one that exists today. The contrast between past and present is sharpest when we focus on one critical dimension: the degree to which public policy either encourages or thwarts competition.
The transportation, energy, and communications sectors were subject to pervasive price and entry regulation in the postwar era. Railroad rates and service had been under federal control since the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, but the Motor Carrier Act of 1935 extended the Interstate Commerce Commission’s regulatory authority to cover trucking and bus lines as well. In 1938 airline routes and fares fell under the control of the Civil Aeronautics Authority, later known as the Civil Aeronautics Board. After the discovery of the East Texas oil field in 1930, the Texas Railroad Commission acquired the effective authority to regulate the nation’s oil production. Starting in 1938, the Federal Power Commission regulated rates for the interstate transmission of natural gas. The Federal Communications Commission, created in 1934, allocated licenses to broadcasters and regulated phone rates.
Beginning with the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, prices and production levels on a wide variety of farm products were regulated by a byzantine complex of controls and subsidies. High import tariffs shielded manufacturers from international competition. And in the retail sector, aggressive discounting was countered by state-level “fair trade laws,” which allowed manufacturers to impose minimum resale prices on nonconsenting distributors.
Comprehensive regulation of the financial sector restricted competition in capital markets too. The McFadden Act of 1927 added a federal ban on interstate branch banking to widespread state-level restrictions on intrastate branching. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 erected a wall between commercial and investment banking, effectively brokering a market-sharing agreement protecting commercial and investment banks from each other. Regulation Q, instituted in 1933, prohibited interest payments on demand deposits and set interest rate ceilings for time deposits. Provisions of the Securities Act of 1933 limited competition in underwriting by outlawing pre-offering solicitations and undisclosed discounts. These and other restrictions artificially stunted the depth and development of capital markets, muting the intensity of competition throughout the larger “real” economy. New entrants are much more dependent on a well-developed financial system than are established firms, since incumbents can self-finance through retained earnings or use existing assets as collateral. A hobbled financial sector acts as a barrier to entry and thereby reduces established firms’ vulnerability to competition from entrepreneurial upstarts.
The highly progressive tax structure of the early postwar decades further dampened competition. The top marginal income tax rate shot up from 25 percent to 63 percent under Herbert Hoover in 1932, climbed as high as 94 percent during World War II, and stayed at 91 percent during most of the 1950s and early ’60s. Research by the economists William Gentry of Williams College and Glenn Hubbard of Columbia University has found that such rates act as a “success tax,” discouraging employees from striking out as entrepreneurs.