American Talk

Paralysed politics makes America more unequal

Boss Tweed

Boss Tweed, by Thomas Nast, as originally published in Harper's Weekly (Wikimedia Commons)

One obvious problem for 21st-century America: the seeming zero-sum paralysis of our national-level governing system, illustrated most recently by the spectacle of the Congressional–Executive/Republican–Democratic tussling over the Iran negotiations.

Another obvious problem: the seeming polarisation of American society on almost every axis, from economic well-being to political and cultural beliefs.

We tend to discuss these problems as if they are serious but only indirectly connected. That indirect link would be via the increasing Citizens United–era dominance of big money in politics. This, in turn, makes it harder even to consider, let alone enact, policies that would blunt the winner-take-all aspects of a globalising economy or rebuild the public institutions that have historically buoyed a middle class and protected the poor.

One specific virtue of an admirable-on-many-fronts review article by Jill Lepore in the latest New Yorker is that she makes clear the connection between these twin pathologies. This argument comes in a discussion in her piece "Richer and Poorer," which begins with a discussion of Robert Putnam's new book Our Kids and ends with material from a forthcoming book called Inequality: What Can Be Done?, by Anthony Atkinson.

Lepore's whole essay is very much worth reading, but here is the gist of the connection she lays out. She begins with the ever-faddish "culture of poverty" sociological explanations for inequality, including those in Robert Putnam's new Our Kids book. Then she moves to Atkinson's and mentions a study he discusses:

It might be that people have been studying inequality in all the wrong places. A few years ago, two scholars of comparative politics, Alfred Stepan, at Columbia, and the late Juan J. Linz — numbers men — tried to figure out why the United States has for so long had much greater income inequality than any other developed democracy


Stepan and Linz identified twenty-three long-standing democracies with advanced economies. Then they counted the number of veto players in each of those twenty-three governments. (A veto player is a person or body that can block a policy decision. Stepan and Linz explain, “For example, in the United States, the Senate and the House of Representatives are veto players because without their consent, no bill can become a law.”) [Most] countries Stepan and Linz studied have only one veto player [with one-house legislatures] A few countries have two veto players; Switzerland and Australia have three. Only the United States has four. Then they made a chart, comparing Gini indices with veto-player numbers: the more veto players in a government, the greater the nation’s economic inequality...

Then they observed something more ... Using the number of seats and the size of the population to calculate malapportionment [in 23 countries], they assigned a “Gini Index of Inequality of Representation” to those eight upper houses, and found that the United States had the highest score: it has the most malapportioned and the least representative upper house. These scores, too, correlated with the countries’ Gini scores for income inequality: the less representative the upper body of a national legislature, the greater the gap between the rich and the poor.

The growth of inequality isn’t inevitable. But, insofar as Americans have been unable to adopt measures to reduce it, the numbers might seem to suggest that the problem doesn’t lie with how Americans treat one another’s kids, as lousy as that is. It lies with Congress.

Worth reading; thanks to Michael Ham for the tip.

This article was originally published at The Atlantic