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Review: Inequality: What Can Be Done?


Here are two must-read books for those who care about the human condition in an era in which we are immersed in a dumber-than-rocks political and media culture. I read Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century last year shortly after it came out. That book has received an enormous amount of attention among the intelligentsia and hardly needs a review by me, nor am I qualified to review it. On the other hand, Anthony Atkinson’s book, Inequality: What Can Be Done, ought to be in the hands of everyone who is politically active — or anyone who votes, for that matter.

Piketty’s book is an account of just how appallingly unequal societies have become. Atkinson picks up where Piketty leaves off and explores what might be done about inequality. He develops 15 proposals for reversing increasing inequality. These are not pie-in-the-sky proposals. They are common-sense reversals of the political choices that started around 1980, when an epidemic of voodoo economics and disguised greed (think Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) got loose in our political culture and set us on the course we have been on for the last 35 years.

The common wisdom, as Atkinson points out, is that we can’t afford higher taxes on the rich or strengthening the social safety net, because globalization and technology have made everything different now. But Atkinson shows that to be nothing but voodoo. He devotes a section to the history of globalization and points out that there was a strong wave of globalization in the 19th Century, made possible largely because of technological improvements and economies in manufacturing and shipping. And yet it was during that period of 19th Century globalization that many modern reforms that reduced inequality (until the 1980 reversal) got their start. For example, in 1881 in Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm I proposed old-age insurance. In 1885, Austria adopted compulsory health insurance. In 1902, the first worker’s compensation law was enacted in the United States.

Atkinson points out that econometric models, aided by fast and cheap computing, have become quite good at modeling what-if scenarios of changes in economic policies and taxation. Though the heirs of Reagan and Thatcher continue to believe and to shout about that higher taxes on the rich will stall economies, actual experience over the last 25 years shows no such thing — nor do the econometric models show any such thing. It is no accident that one of the first deeds of the our new Republican Congress was to castrate the Congressional Budget Office, forcing the CBO to go along with right-wing economic voodoo, which got us where we are today.

Inequality: What Can Be Done. Anthony B. Atkinson. Published May 11, 2015, Harvard University Press.

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