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New provocative evidence
on June 1, 2008
Larry Bartels's book is one of the most important written works on economic inequality issues over the last 25 years. Anyone discussing economic inequality in the U.S. will have to deal with Bartels's arguments and evidence, even if you disagree with his findings and how he interprets those findings.
Among the evidence and arguments of Bartels's books are the following:
*** Since World War II, Democratic Presidents have been associated with modestly progressive patterns of real per family income growth, that is the income growth during Democratic Presidents' terms has been somewhat higher for lower income families than for upper income families. Republican Presidents have been associated with highly regressive patterns of real per family income growth, that is income growth has been much higher for upper income families than for other families. However, all income groups have on average gained more under Democratic Presidents.
*** The Democratic Presidents' better performance has been concentrated during the second year of Presidential terms. Republican Presidents have done better during the 4th year of Presidential terms, that is the election year. This may help explain Presidential election results, as voters appear to respond more to election year economic performance than the economic performance of prior years.
*** Economic issues still are key for working class voters in the U.S.
*** Political leaders appear to be much more responsive to upper class and middle class voters in their state than to lower class voters. However, even more of voting behavior is explained by the ideology of a politician's political party. This is true both for the Democrats, who have ignored most voters' opposition to estate taxes, and for Republicans, who have ignored most voters' support for higher minimum wages.
Bartels's work is only a start. He really does not have even close to a complete theory about WHY economic growth for different income families has the correlations he finds with Presidential political party. We would need to know more about this to more completely judge the relative economic performance under different political parties.
In addition, his book raises the issue of how we can improve the quality of the political debate in the U.S. over issues of economic inequality. There is considerable resistance in the U.S. to openly discussing these issues. Politicians who discuss these issues risk being accused of promoting "class warfare". As Bartels points out, there is some tendency to want to assume that somehow the income distribution is determined by unchanging economic laws that are impervious to political influence. Bartels presents new evidence that in fact the income distribution can be influenced by public policy to a very large extent. But the question is, how do we make this understanding part of the mainstream political debate?