U.S. History and the Politics That Foster Income Inequality

By Porter, Eduardo | International New York Times, May 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

U.S. History and the Politics That Foster Income Inequality


Porter, Eduardo, International New York Times


Can democracy stop inequality from rising? The answer echoing down the halls of history is not encouraging.

The years from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were not the most egalitarian in American history. Robber barons roamed the economy, living off lavish rents generated by powerful cartels and industrial monopolies.

The richest 1 percent of Americans reaped nearly one in five dollars generated by the economy and amassed almost half its wealth; at the other end of the scale, wage earners lost ground to inflation. It was the era of the Haymarket riots and Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." Workers staged 1,500 strikes in 1886 alone.

Ultimately, though, the disparities in wealth and income led to an age of ferment that came to be known as the Progressive era.

Women got the right to vote. Congress passed the Sherman Act. Chicago's Beef Trust and John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil were taken down. In 1914, Henry Ford decided to raise wages to $5 a day, doubling at a stroke most of his workers' pay.

And crucially, a progressive federal income tax was enacted by constitutional amendment, overcoming the opposition of not only the steel lobby and the establishment press, but a Supreme Court that had struck down the income tax law of 1894 as unconstitutional.

"The present assault on capital is but the beginning," wrote Justice Stephen J. Field in a concurring opinion against the 1894 law. "It will be but the steppingstone to others, larger and more sweeping, till our political contests will become a war of the poor against the rich; a war constantly growing in intensity and bitterness."

The United States has come a long way over the last century. Still, it remains a strikingly similar place in a couple of important respects.

The income of a typical American family has barely risen since the 1970s. The share of national income captured by the richest 1 percent of Americans is even higher than it was at the dawn of the 20th century.

The parallel offers valuable insight into one of the most important questions posed by the nation's lopsided development: Can democracy stop inequality from rising? Despite the gains of the Progressive era, the answer echoing down the halls of history is not encouraging.

Basic models of political economy hold that inequality self- corrects. As income concentrates among a smaller group of voters, majorities will vote for more redistribution.

But that isn't quite how the world works. For starters, the poor vote less than the rich. And they don't vote exclusively based on their economic self-interest. Many Americans, rich or poor, mistrust government. They support free-market capitalism and view the distribution of the nation's economic fruits as roughly fair.

The growing concentration of income can, in fact, make inequality more difficult to correct, as the wealthy bring their wealth to bear on the political process to maintain their privilege.

What's more, disparities in income seem to produce political polarization and gridlock, which tend to favor those who receive a better deal from the prevailing rules, says Francesco Trebbi, an expert on political economy at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

The American political system may eventually act against the interests of the fortunate few at the very top of the pyramid of success. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

U.S. History and the Politics That Foster Income Inequality
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.