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Increased Competition, Increased Inequality Krugman blames the conservative movement for income inequality, arguing that right-wingers exploited white backlash in the wake of the civil rights movement to hijack first the Republican Party and then the country as a whole. Once in power, they duped the public with “weapons of mass distraction” (i.e., social issues and foreign policy) while “cut[ting] taxes on the rich,” “try[ing] to shrink government benefits and undermine the welfare state,” and “empower[ing] businesses to confront and, to a large extent,crush the union movement.”
Obviously, conservatism has contributed in important ways to the political shifts of recent decades. But the real story of those changes is more complicated, and more interesting, than Krugman lets on. Influences across the political spectrum have helped shape the more competitive more individualistic, and less equal society we now live in.
Indeed, the relevant changes in social norms were led by movements associated with the left. The women’s movement led the assault on sex discrimination. The civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and ’60s inspired more enlightened attitudes about race and ethnicity, with results such as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a law spearheaded by a young Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). And then there was the counterculture of the 1960s, whose influence spread throughout American society in the Me Decade that followed. It upended the social ethic of group-minded solidarity and conformity with a stampede of unbridled individualism and self-assertion. With the general relaxation of inhibitions, talented and ambitious people felt less restrained from seeking top dollar in the marketplace. Yippies and yuppies were two sides of the same coin.
Contrary to Krugman’s narrative, liberals joined conservatives in pushing for dramatic changes in economic policy. In addition to his role in liberalizing immigration, Kennedy was a leader in pushing through both the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 and the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, which deregulated the trucking industry—and he was warmly supported in both efforts by the left-wing activist Ralph Nader. President Jimmy Carter signed these two pieces of legislation, as well as the Natural Gas Policy Act of 1978, which began the elimination of price controls on natural gas, and the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, which deregulated the railroad industry.
The three most recent rounds of multilateral trade talks were all concluded by Democratic presidents: the Kennedy Round in 1967 by Lyndon Johnson, the Tokyo Round in 1979 by Jimmy Carter, and the Uruguay Round in 1994 by Bill Clinton. And though it was Ronald Reagan who slashed the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent in 1981, it was two Democrats, Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who sponsored the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which pushed the top rate all the way down to 28 percent.
What about the unions? According to the Berkeley economist David Card, the shrinking of the unionized labor force accounted for 15 percent to 20 percent of the rise in overall male wage inequality between the early 1970s and the early 1990s. Krugman is right that labor’s decline stems in part from policy changes, but his ideological blinkers lead him to identify the wrong ones.
The only significant change to the pro-union Wagner Act of 1935 came through the Taft-Hartley Act, which outlawed closed shops (contracts requiring employers to hire only union members) and authorized state right-to-work laws (which ban contracts requiring employees to join unions). But that piece of legislation was enacted in 1947—three years before the original Treaty of Detroit between General Motors and the United Auto Workers. It would be a stretch to argue that the Golden Age ended before it even began.
Scrounging for a policy explanation, economists Levy and Temin point to the failure of a 1978 labor law reform bill to survive a Senate filibuster. But maintaining the status quo is not a policy change. They also describe President Reagan’s 1981 decision to fire striking air traffic controllers as a signal to employers that the government no longer supported labor unions.
While it is true that Reagan’s handling of that strike, along with his appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, made the policy environment for unions less favorable, the effect of those moves on unionization was marginal.
The major reason for the fall in unionized employment, according to a 2007 paper by Georgia State University economist Barry Hirsch, “is that union strength developed through the 1950s was gradually eroded by increasingly competitive and dynamic markets.” He elaborates: “When much of an industry is unionized, firms may prosper with higher union costs as long as their competitors face similar costs. When union companies face low-cost competitors, labor cost increases cannot be passed through to consumers. Factors that increase the competitiveness of product markets increased international trade, product market deregulation, and the entry of low-cost competitors—make it more difficult for union companies to prosper.”
So the decline of private-sector unionism was abetted by policy changes, but the changes were not in labor policy specifically. They were the general, bipartisan reduction of trade barriers and price and entry controls. Unionized firms found themselves at a critical disadvantage. They shrank accordingly, and union rolls shrank with them.
The move toward a more individualistic culture is not unique to the United States. As the political scientist Ronald Inglehart has documented in dozens of countries around the world, the shift toward what he calls “postmodern” attitudes and values is a predictable cultural response to rising affluence and expanding choices. “In a major part of the world,” he writes in his 1997 book Modernization and Postmodernization, “the disciplined, self-denying, and achievement-oriented norms of industrial society are giving way to an increasingly broad latitude for individual choice of lifestyles and individual self-expression.”
The increasing focus on individual fulfillment means, inevitably, less deference to tradition and organizations. “A major component of the Postmodern shift,” Inglehart argues, “is a shift away from both religious and bureaucratic authority, bringing declining emphasis on all kinds of authority. For deference to authority has high costs: the individual’s personal goals must be subordinated to those of a broader entity.”
Paul Krugman may long for the return of self-denying corporate workers who declined to seek better opportunities out of organizational loyalty, and thus kept wages artificially suppressed, but these are creatures of a bygone ethos—an ethos that also included uncritical acceptance of racist and sexist traditions and often brutish intolerance of deviations from mainstream lifestyles and sensibilities.
The rise in income inequality does raise issues of legitimate public concern. And reasonable people disagree hotly about what ought to be done to ensure that our prosperity is widely shared. But the caricature of postwar history put forward by Krugman and other purveyors of nostalgianomics won’t lead us anywhere. Reactionary fantasies never do.
Brink Lindsey (email@example.com) is vice president for research at the Cato Institute, which published the policy paper from which this article was adapted.