I was really pleased to see Tim Noah's The Great Divergence sharing front page billing in the New York Times Book Review today and garnering well deserved kudos.
The Great Divergence is a concise, lucidly argued study of rising inequality in the United States, one which starts with the premise that such escalating levels of inequity are unhealthy in a democracy. However, despite having a clear moral point of view, Noah does what all too few polemicists do these days (particularly fatuous clowns on the right like Jonah Goldberg) -- he argues using solid facts and sound history, he doesn't overreach, and he doesn't pretend to have comprehensive answers to a complex and, in some respects, a global problem. Noah traces the history of studying income and inequality in the U.S., something that began with a handful of sociologists in the Progressive Era. It is an interesting and informative chapter and one of which I knew little. Noah also discussed why he has chosen to focus on income rather than wealth, arguing that the former rather than the latter is the more important aspect of economic life over the last hundred or so years. (I understand this decision but I do not think wealth should be understated as a matter of importance, especially in an age in which pensions are becoming things of the past -- the accumulation of wealth is going to have to be part of achieving some security in old age. Moreover, the ability of a small segment of society to accumulate and then pass on wealth -- exempt from estate taxes -- is likely to further exacerbate inequality.)
Noah sees the rise of inequality as a multi-faceted process, one which has been exacerbated by a combination of factors -- political, technological, demographic, and cultural. He cites, among other things, the concerted efforts by business, in conjunction with their Republican political partners, to crush organized labor over the last thirty years (an effort that started in 1947 with the Taft-Hartley Act), the undermining of the industrial base through global trade, the dominance of right wing economic policy over the last three decades, including the erosion of the progressive income tax, the deregulation of the financial sector, and the relative shrinking of the public sector, the impact of undocumented workers on certain segments of the working class, the unbridled growth of business influence over policy, and ultimately, the growth of a culture that has allowed greed to flourish and the sense of the common good to wither. Noah discusses how the confluence of these phenomena has resulted in this world of growing inequality and much more limited social mobility.
The book concludes with a series of recommendations to attack inequality -- 1) eliminate the Bush tax cuts and add some additional brackets for very high income individuals; 2) expand government payrolls and enact some New Deal style jobs programs; 3) import highly skilled individuals from abroad; 4) universalize pre-school; 5) impose price controls on college tuition; 6) re-regulate Wall Street; 7) elect Democratic presidents; and, most importantly, 7) revive the labor movement.
All of this is set out in clear, concise, highly readable prose, with the book clocking in at 195 substance-filled pages (and about fifty pages of backnotes). It's a timely and thoughtful treatment of a subject of increasing importance. I strongly recommend it -- and would also note that Tim is a truly good guy as well -- so you can feel good about buying it for that reason as well.