In the wake of the Great Recession, economic inequality – the extent to which income and wealth are distributed unevenly across a population – has emerged as a major issue in the United States.
Since the late 1970s, there has been enormous change in the distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. The gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” has widened, with a small portion of the population reaping an increasingly larger share of the country’s economic rewards. Warren Buffet got it right when he said, “There’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years and my class has won.”
The average American has lost. Since the mid-1970s, wages have remained stagnant and middle-class earnings have lagged the cost of living.
There are a number of factors contributing to economic inequality, downward mobility among working-class Americans and the dangerous fissures it has caused American society. These include government tax and regulatory policies, the acceleration of finance capitalism, culture, immigration, globalization, and the rate of technological change.
Frequently overlooked is the declining strength of private-sector labor unions. In 1979, unions represented 24 percent of the private sector labor force; today only 6.5 percent of private-sector workers are unionized.
The effects of this decline are fiercely debated. Conservatives argue that labor unions decrease competitiveness and business profitability. Progressives say that in an era of globalization, companies threaten to ship jobs to factories offshore to extract concessions from unions with impunity. For sure, unions raise wages, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they reduce profitability or diminish competitiveness. Consider the success of unionized firms such as Southwest Airlines and UPS.
American manufacturing and wages suffered as U.S. companies engaged in extensive offshore outsourcing of decent-paying domestic jobs to China and other low-wage countries under the banner of free trade, prioritizing short-term profits over long-term investments and the public interest. For example, from 2000-2016, the U.S. shed five million manufacturing jobs, a fact that supporters of free trade and globalization rarely mention.
The loss of traditional manufacturing jobs has contributed to income inequality and declining union membership. According to a report by the Washington-based think tank the Economic Policy Institute, if unions had the same presence in the private sector today as in 1979, both union members and non-members would be making about $2,500 more each year.
Many companies have built their business models around offshoring manufacturing to reduce costs without passing the savings on to consumers. They view the wages and benefits that once underpinned a middle-class lifestyle as obscenely excessive. That’s why they support free trade and use their political power to garner the support of both major political parties, helping accelerate the demise of labor unions. Government turned a blind eye as corporations packed up good jobs and send them overseas, weakening private-sector unions.
The American public has repeatedly been told that policies that restrain foreign competition are a form of protectionism that subsidizes inefficient domestic industries and raises prices. The issue of job losses is ignored. The benefits of free trade allegedly exceed the costs of lost jobs, especially for those who work with their hands. Assumed consumer benefits should be considered when it comes to trade policy, but so should giving working-class people a fair shot at the American Dream. Americans need a more balanced way of thinking about free trade and the offshoring of American jobs.
Is it any wonder that President Trump’s campaign slogan – “Make America Great Again” – resonated with ordinary Americans? This rhetoric is reminiscent of 1988 Democratic Presidential candidate Rep. Richard Gephardt’s slogan “Let’s Make American First Again.”
Writing over 2400 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle captured the importance of inequality when he wrote, “A polity with extremes of wealth and poverty is a city not of free persons but of slaves and masters, the ones consumed by envy, the others by contempt.”