karl-henrik pettersson


Filosofiska tankar om företagande och ekonomi

Vilket samhälle vill vi ha? Hur mycket marknad? Hur mycket politik? Varför dessa ekonomiska orättvisor?

Notes on a society in crisis (14): Why U.S. politicians don’t seem to care about income inequality

On April 1st 2012, my book,”Dagbok från USA”, came out in Sweden. It will also soon be published in English (as an e-book for Kindle and for other readers) with the title: “Diary from the United States – Notes on a society in crisis“. As an appetizer for English speaking readers, I will the coming weeks publish some excerpts from the book.

Why U.S. politicians don’t seem to care about income inequality

Den sarbara supermakten (“The fragile superpower”) is the Swedish title of a recent book by Erik Asard, political science professor at Uppsala University and head of the Swedish Institute for North American Studies. It’s an excellent book. As a reader I feel that it’s written by a person who deeply grasps the United States and its political system. Therefore it also contains some surprises.

For example, I was surprised that Erik Asard is so clear on the need for modernization of the U.S. Constitution. American social critics and commentators seldom dare to approach this issue. Fareed Zakaria, political scientist and respected CNN journalist, is one of the few that I’ve seen doing that. For example he believes that the principle that each state, regardless of population size, under the Constitution chooses two members to the Senate, is an anomaly. Otherwise Zakaria isn’t very specific about what in the Constitution is a problem. Nor is Asard. One just gets the feeling that he believes that a more thorough review of the U.S. Constitution is needed. Another thing that surprised me was that “American exceptionalism” has such a long historical tradition. From the 1600s onwards, Americans have had a sense of being a chosen people, chosen by God. With this historical perspective it’s easier to understand the American self-righteous attitude. The Bush doctrine, which in essence means that the U.S. has a right to preemptively attack other countries, is a contemporary example of this self-righteousness. The third surprise was that populism in American politics has such importance and such a long historical tradition. Populism has been a factor in American politics since the revolution. Apparently there is a connection between the popular protests against the British in the 1700s (like the Boston Tea Party) and today’s Tea Party movement.

Another thing that surprises me: Erik Asard has written an exciting history of recent American political developments (the book has the subtitle: From John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama), well worth reading, and yet you get no comprehensive answer to the exceedingly important question of why the country’s income inequality does not occupy a bigger place in political consciousness. How is it that the huge – and growing – income gap between rich and poor does not seem to be a matter of real gravity for either Republicans or Democrats? Erik Asard makes no attempt to explain why. I think that is a deficiency of the book. There can hardly be a more imperative major policy challenge for the U.S. than the ever-widening gap between those with and those without financial means

If I could speculate about why income inequality today is such a marginal issue in American politics, I would point to the following factors:

*It’s not in line with American values to make income inequalities in society a central political issue. I would imagine that a great majority of Americans believe that it’s up to each and every individual to bring about a decent livelihood. It’s considered an individual, not a political, responsibility. Those people who fail in their endeavors have to suffer the consequences. One would of course find the same attitude in other Western countries, but less dominant, a bit more generous toward the weaker groups in society, and with a more open mind to collective efforts to help people in need.

*As a consequence there is no major political party in the U.S. – and there has never been – with a focus on income distribution issues. In this respect the United States is unique among Western countries. All Western European countries have big socialist, social democratic, social-liberal, and Christian democratic parties with far-reaching ambitions in terms of income distribution and welfare state building. In most cases these parties have also had the strength to get their ambitions and plans implemented.

*The intellectuals on the left in the United States have focused for a long time on issues other than financial and material matters. Erik Asard writes in the book about the philosopher Richard Rorty, who has pointed out that U.S. leftist intellectuals have in recent decades left their classic criticism of economic inequity and instead focused on cultural and social issues – feminism, LGBT, ethnicity, identity, etc. This has contributed to income inequality issues ending up in the political shadows.

*In this category you can add a weakening trade union movement. In most other OECD countries, unions have more weight than in the U.S. Although one should not exaggerate the union’s importance as a political driving force in any country today, it’s nevertheless worth noting that income distribution issues have lost their weight over the same period as the American trade unions have gone from having had some political power in the 1970s, to become an almost politically marginal phenomenon today.

*When the middle class is economically squeezed, they are not prepared to stand up for those who are worst off. The Harvard political economist Benjamin Friedman shows exactly that in his book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. It has been very clear in the U.S., at least since the second half of the nineteenth century, that hard times for the middle class mean that little is politically done for the poor and vulnerable, and vice versa. I will return to Benjamin Friedman in the next article.

To these five factors, which to a greater or lesser extent are U.S. specific, we can add three general conditions, valid in all Western countries. It’s not just in the U.S. that income inequality has grown over the past three decades and received less political attention. This goes for all Western countries. It’s just that in the United States the income gaps are relatively the biggest – and has received less political attention than in other countries. That is what makes the difference. The three factors are the following:

*We have had a more market-oriented economic policy in recent decades, from the early 1980s onwards. As a consequence, the income distribution issue has more or less disappeared from the mainstream political discourse, at least acquired less political weight.

*Globalization has also contributed to the income distribution issue getting less attention. When the forces of globalization work, when The Word is Flat (the title of an acclaimed book about globalization by the New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman), there is less understanding, or no understanding at all, of the question, how do we help those who financially are having a hard time, the poor and vulnerable, in our society? Instead, politicians tend to ask: How can we help our companies become competitive in a global environment?

*The capital owners’ share of total income has increased in Western countries in recent decades, and consequently, wage earners’ share has declined. Such a development leads to widening income gaps because the owners of capital, and their associates (managers and problem solvers of various kinds), are raising their relative incomes sharply, while in practice all others get less. Those who have both high income from work and income from -capital (like some business owners and bankers on Wall Street) are the ones with the best growth of relative income. Even if politicians would understand these relationships, in a globalized world they would have no tools to radically change how the income is allocated between capital and labor. Then it’s just as well not to talk about it.


Friedman, B. M., 2005, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Alfred A. Knopf, New York;

Friedman, T.L., 2006, The World is Flat, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York;

Zakaria, F., 2009, The Post American World, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York;

Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K., 2009, The Spirit Level, Penguin Books, London;

Asard, E., 2010, Den sarbara supermakten, Media History, Lund;


First published (in Swedish): August 18, 2011



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