A searching examination of the decline of democratic ideals in the face of inequality—racial, political, and economic.
“Rising income inequality and slow economic growth have been two of the most striking patterns in rich countries during the last 35 years,” writes Rothwell, the principal economist at Gallup. None of the conventional talking-point explanations, from overpaid pop stars to uncontrolled mass migration or unfair trade practices, accounts for this inequality. Instead, writes the author, the explanation lies in the growing inefficiency of societies in which elites have reserved unto themselves more and more of the pie, including most of the available public services, from education to housing. Combing through data with Pikettian single-mindedness, Rothwell examines the rise of this inequality and the correlated decline in confidence in democratic habits, a decline that has made the world safe for nationalist authoritarianism. The author resists easy characterization: Some of his prescriptions are openly liberal, such as the demand for equal access to social goods such as public education and health care, while others are more qualified, such as his view that mass migration must be regulated “so as to protect native citizens from wild distortions in the labor market.” A perhaps unexpected but intriguing component of Rothwell’s argument is the reform of zoning laws that have effectively destroyed the ability of lower income earners to own homes, a social good of another kind that would “enhance the cognitive ability and lower the crime rate of groups that live in highly segregated high poverty communities." Studded with tables and laced with numbers, the text is dense. It is also striking on many counts, including its fluency in several branches of the social sciences beyond economics. Rothwell has something to say about the allure of both Bono and Beyoncé, the failure of libertarianism, the question of intelligence as a predictor of success (“self-discipline, enthusiasm, and the ability to avoid getting anxious and upset in the face of stress matter about as much”). There’s something to ponder on every page.
A sometimes-daunting but essential addition to the discussion of inequality and its remedies.