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



  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Print
  • email

233 Kommentarer

  1. Excellent write ups. Cheers.
    thesis statement thesis statement meaning thesis paper thesis writing

  2. Howdy! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone!

    Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all
    your posts! Keep up the excellent work!

  3. You said it very well..
    define thesis good thesis statements thesis titles doctoral thesis

  4. Fetish, This is a good website Fetish

  5. Mature, This is a good website Mature

  6. Prostate, This is a good website Prostate

  7. Enhance, This is a good website Enhance

  8. Sex pill, This is a good website Sex pill

  9. Erotic, This is a good website Erotic

  10. Scrotum, This is a good website Scrotum

  11. Vagina, This is a good website Vagina

  12. Vulva, This is a good website Vulva

  13. Hi! This is my 1st comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I
    truly enjoy reading your blog posts. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums
    that cover the same topics? Thanks a ton!

  14. These are truly great ideas in regarding blogging.

    You have touched some good things here. Any way keep up wrinting.

  15. But if you stick to our recommendations, you are certain to have a fun encounter.

    Here is my web site; read more

  16. The head of the department, department or unit determines the state secret
    and the level of sgate secret confidentiality for the facts of his/her unit.

    Here is my blog post Korea Sports Betting Site

  17. So we have low unemployment for everyone, such as old folks, but thesse are truly low wage jobs.

    Here is my web page; 여성알바

  18. I am ѕure this paragraph has touched ɑll thе internet visitors, іts reаlly rеally pleasant post ߋn building up neԝ website.

    Mу web site: mattresses cleaning

  19. For example, if you are interested in sports betting in New
    York, you can download the app, set up an account and head
    to New Jersey to location bets on the web.

  20. Pretty! This has been an incredibly wonderful post. Thanks for providing this

  21. I am actually thankful to the holder of this
    web page who has shared this fantastic post at at this time.

  22. Hi there to all, how is everything, I think every one is getting more from
    this site, and your views are fastidious in support of new users.

  23. Normally I don’t learn post on blogs, however I would like to
    say that this write-up very forced me to try and do it!
    Your writing style has been amazed me. Thank you,
    quite great article.

  24. Excellent post. I was checking continuously this blog and I am inspired!
    Extremely useful information specially the ultimate section :
    ) I take care of such information much. I used to be looking for this certain information for a very lengthy
    time. Thanks and best of luck.

  25. Hi! Someone in my Myspace group shared this site with
    us so I came to check it out. I’m definitely enjoying
    the information. I’m book-marking and will be tweeting this
    to my followers! Fantastic blog and terrific style and design.

  26. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you
    relied on the video to make your point. You clearly know what youre talking about, why
    waste your intelligence on just posting videos to your site when you could be giving us something enlightening to

  27. Very good post! We will be linking to this particularly great post on our website.
    Keep up the good writing.

  28. Thanks designed for sharing such a fastidious thought, paragraph is
    fastidious, thats why i have read it entirely

  29. Good web site you have here.. It’s hard to find quality writing like
    yours nowadays. I honestly appreciate individuals like you!
    Take care!!

  30. Thanks to my father who informed me concerning this blog, this
    weblog is in fact remarkable.

  31. They aid in the treatment of hearing-related conditions like tinnitus and Meniere’s disease fildena in india

Skriv kommentar