The piece published below by Paul Krugman, at http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/?8dpc.
is part of our occasional series of comments by respected progressives (and sometimes non-progressives!). Here Krugman argues, as we have, that Americans tend to have an acceptance of economic inequality based on a kind of implied Social Darwinism. This oversimplifies Krugman and the American outlook but observes that those that have greater wealth generally Merit it, and vice versa. This is not only different from the current view in many countries that greater wealth is not always “earned,” there is a larger component of luck—or structural factors than many Americans would acknowledge. It also (America’s view for much of the past 150 years) different from the 19th (and earlier) Century view that wealth was just sort of the natural order of things (a view prevalent in ancient and Medieval times as well), without much attention to how that order emerged. Systematic inquiries into the origins of inequality emerged in the 19th C. writings of David Ricardo and Karl Marx, among other, and at least hinted at in the work of Adam Smith in the late 1700s. The topic has been most recently taken up on a grand scale, as noted in our previous blog entry, by Thomas Picketty in his CAPITAL… IN THE 21ST CENTURY.
AUG 20 1:17 PM
Via the FT, a new study compares perceptions of inequality across advanced nations. The big takeaway here is that Americans are more likely than Europeans to believe that they live in a middle-class society, even though income is really much less equally distributed here than in Europe. I’ve truncated the table to show the comparison between the U.S. and France: the French think they live in a hierarchical pyramid when they are in reality mostly middle-class, Americans are the opposite.
As the paper says, other evidence also says that Americans vastly underestimate inequality in their own society – and when asked to choose an ideal wealth distribution, say that they like Sweden.
Why the difference? American exceptionalism when it comes to income distribution – our unique suspicion of and hostility to social insurance and anti-poverty programs – is, I and many others would argue, very much tied to our racial history. This does not, however, explain in any direct way why we should misperceive real inequality: people could oppose aid to Those People while understanding how rich the rich are. There may, however, be an indirect effect, because the racial divide empowers right-wing groups of all kinds, which in turn issue a lot of propaganda dismissing and minimizing inequality.