On the question of income mobility, Noah casually dismisses the possibility that having a higher absolute standard of living than one’s parents is more important to Americans than ending up at a higher rank than one’s parents when assessed against peers. But if “absolute mobility” is what really matters to Americans, and if the U.S. looks more impressive than other countries in this regard, then the American Dream doesn’t look quite so delusional, nor ambivalence about inequality quite so misguided. These are empirical questions that have not been answered, but Noah cannot even imagine a story in which Americans’ conceptions of their opportunities are consistent with reality.
Noah closes the book with the obligatory policy-recommendation chapter that so often proves unsatisfactory even when written by genuine policy experts. Noah wants to “soak the rich,” create a public-jobs program, “impose price controls” on colleges, “revive the labor movement,” and “elect Democratic Presidents.” This last recommendation derives from research by Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels claiming to show that the middle class and poor do better when a Democrat is in the White House — research debunked, separately, by National Review contributor Jim Manzi and political scientist James Campbell as dependent on fragile methodological specifications.
In the course of the book, Noah deftly explains the relative roles of discrimination, rising economic returns to education, increased trade and immigration, declining unionization, and public policies in contributing to rising inequality. Where the topics are narrower and more clear-cut, Noah is on firm ground in his presentation of the evidence and his conclusions about where it points. Where they involve broad questions of economic and political power, his ideological presuppositions tend to bring back one’s frustration, even as his writing remains engaging. I learned a lot from Noah’s thoughtful mini-history of the labor movement, even as I marveled at his refusal to concede that there is any legitimacy in corporate concerns about the fairness of the regime that New Deal policy created. His chapter focusing on the unique factors behind the divergence of the top 1 percent from everyone else is particularly well done, but readers who are not inclined to view the top 1 percent as the “stinking rich” will have to get past Noah’s demagogic chapter title.
It is probably too much to ask of an inequality primer that it be engaging and simultaneously transcend the ideological commitments that taint so much treatment of the topic. Inequality, after all, is an issue that inspires even Nobel laureates to make sweeping arguments that academic research does not support. At least Noah writes well. But I do hope that in five years I can refer interested parties to a second inequality primer against which The Great Divergence can be balanced.
– Mr. Winship is a fellow at the Brookings Institution.