What Can Be Done About Economic Inequality in America?

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
Workers converge on Wall Street to protest against financial institutions and inequality on June 22, 2011, in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Workers converge on Wall Street to protest against financial institutions and inequality on June 22, 2011, in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Mike Konczal reviews economist Anthony B. Atkinson’s new book, which shatters the conventional wisdom that economic inequality is a natural result of free markets and argues that it is, instead, a willful political choice we should stop making.

Konczal's Pacific Standard book review is currently available to subscribers and will be posted online on Tuesday, November 10. Until then, an excerpt:

Inequality will be everywhere and nowhere in the 2016 presidential debates. Given the way the rhetoric has evolved among the leading candidates, the economy will likely take center stage. The general tenor will be that something has gone wrong, that the economy isn’t working for everyday people. Yet, the moment it comes to explaining why, conventional wisdom will trap the conversation in a state of false idealism, if not paralysis.

There was a preview of this with President Obama several years back. For a brief moment in late 2013, Obama discussed “a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility [as] the defining challenge of our time.” But this quickly transitioned into a conversation about opportunity, with the argument that “opportunity is who we are. And the defining project of our generation must be to restore that promise.”

Clearly, responding adequately to inequality is about much more than the government encouraging people to take advantage of opportunity. But conventional wisdom continues to insist that culture and technology—rather than public policy—are the leading drivers of inequality. It consistently argues that bold solutions won’t work, because they will reduce business growth and innovation by such a degree that the entire effort will become counterproductive.

Breaking out of this rhetorical trap is one of the ambitions of Anthony B. Atkinson’s recent book, Inequality: What Can Be Done? There have been countless books on inequality in the recent past—some arguing that it is a pressing problem and others arguing that it is not—but Atkinson’s stands above the crowded field. By pairing quantitative economic analysis with a clear moral argument, he provides lay readers with a bracing and accessible guide to the current inequality debates. The only thing missing is how to turn reform plans into a political reality, a challenge that will likely define the coming decades.


To read this story in print, subscribe to our bimonthly magazine, on newsstands throughout the month of November. Or you can get our November/December 2015 issue instantly on any of your digital devices. If you don't want to miss this story when it's published on PSmag.com, sign up for our free email newsletter.