In his latest book, The Price of Inequality, Columbia Professor and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz examines the causes of income inequality and offers some remedies. In between, he reaches some startling conclusions, including that America is “no longer the land of opportunity” and “the ‘American dream’ is a myth.”
While we all know stories of people who’ve moved up the social stratosphere, Stiglitz says the statistics tell a very different story. In the last 30 years the share of national income held by the top 1% of Americans has doubled; for to the top 0.1%, their share has tripled, he reports. Meanwhile, median incomes for American workers have stagnated.
Even more than income inequality, “America has the least equality of opportunity of any of the advanced industrial economies,” Stiglitz says. In short, the status you’re born into — whether rich or poor — is more likely to be the status of your adult life in America vs. any other advanced economy, including ‘Old Europe’.
If the root causes of income inequality go unaddressed, America will truly become a two-class society and look much more like a third world economy, Stiglitz warns. “People will live in gated communities with armed guards. It’s a ugly picture. There will be political, social and economic turmoil.” (Hence the book’s subtitle: ‘How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future’)
The good news is Stiglitz believes this “nightmare we’re slowly marching toward” can be avoided, citing Brazil’s experience since the early 1990s as an example of a country that has reduced income inequality. Among other things, he recommends improving education and nutrition for those at the bottom of society, and eliminating “corporate welfare” and other policies which “create wealth but not economic growth.”
Importantly, Stiglitz believes inequality of wealth and opportunity are hurting the overall economy, by limiting competition, promoting cronyism and keeping those at the bottom from reaching their potential.
“What I want is a more dynamic economy and a fairer society,” he says, suggesting income inequality is ultimately detrimental to those at the top, too. “My point is we’ve created an economy that is not in accord with the principles of the free market.”
What do you think?
Is the United States a less upwardly mobile society than we once were?
Is the American Dream becoming increasingly unattainable?
Or can people, while perhaps not “making it rich”, still pull themselves up to the comfortable life they desire?