Do Trends in U.S. Inequality Matter for Norms of Global Governance? Concepts and Empirics for Debate

Carol Graham
Content Type
Working Paper
The Brookings Institution
The United States has long been viewed as the "land of opportunity," where those who work hard get ahead. Belief in this feature of American national identity has persisted even though inequality has been rising for de¬cades. In recent years, the trend toward extremes of income and wealth has accelerated significantly, owing to demographic shifts, the skills bias of the economy and fiscal policy. From 1997 to 2007, the share of income accru¬ing to the top 1 percent of U.S. households increased by 13.5 percentage points, which is equivalent to shifting $1.1 trillion in total annual income to this group - more than the total income of the bottom 40 percent of households. The precise impact of inequality on individual well-being remains controversial, partly because of the complex nature of the metrics needed to gauge it accurately, but also because why it matters depends on what it signals. If inequality is perceived to be the result of just reward for individual effort, then it can be a constructive signal of future opportunities. However, if it is perceived to be the result of an unfair system that rewards a privileged few, inequality can undermine incentives to work hard and invest in the future. In this sense, current U.S. trends have been largely destructive. Economic mobility, for example, has declined in recent decades and is now lower than in many other industrialized countries. There is also a strong intergenerational income correlation (about 0.5) in the U.S.; children of parents who earn 50 percent more than the average are likely to earn 25 percent above the average of their generation. In a world in which individuals' fates are increasingly linked and effective gover¬nance depends on some kind of consensus on social and distributive justice norms, growing income differentials in one country - especially one that has long served as a beacon of economic opportunity - can affect behavior elsewhere, both in terms of investments in education and the labor market and the propensity to protest. More generally, declining economic mobility in the U.S. could undermine confidence in the principles of market econo¬mies and democratic governance that America has espoused for decades - principles that are fundamental to many countries' development strategies.
Economics, Poverty, Social Stratification, Labor Issues
Political Geography
United States, Germany