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America's Killer Capitalism

Faced with data showing a long-term decline in wages alongside rising inequality and "deaths of despair," apologists for the status quo tend to rely on several arguments to explain away the problem. None of them withstands scrutiny.

PRINCETON – A great failure of contemporary American capitalism is that it is not serving everyone. The educated minority – the one-third of the adult population with a four-year college degree – has prospered, but the majority has lost out, not just relatively but absolutely. The facts are increasingly clear and hard to ignore. Less-educated Americans’ prospects are getting worse: they are losing materially, they are enduring more pain and social isolation, and their lives are getting shorter.

After 1970, the engine of American progress began to falter. From the early 1980s onward, economic growth slowed, and what was once a largely equal distribution of gains became increasingly top-heavy. Economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez’simportant work with US tax records shows just how well those at the very top have done.

While many commentators with alternative calculations have questioned the extent of rising income inequality, none has succeeded in dismissing the trend. Others argue that it is not a cause for concern, provided that everyone is prospering. For them, the evidence of falling material measures is a more serious challenge. Among men without a college degree, real (inflation-adjusted) median wages have undergone a trend decline for more than 50 years – experiencing interruptions during economic booms, but never recovering enough to return to the previous peak. Even at the height of the boom just before the COVID-19 pandemic, median wages were lower than at any point in the 1980s.

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