Want to know why Trump really won? A breathtaking new economic analysis has some answersby Duncan Weldon / October 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Three and a half years ago, Thomas Piketty’s 700-page tome about inequality knocked Disney’s Frozen: Journey to the Ice Palace off the Amazon top spot. One reviewer joked Capital in the Twenty-First Century was a VIB (very important book). And it was about a VIP (very important problem)—although on Kindle, apparently, not many readers got past the introduction. Coffee tables groaned under the weight of the wealth gap, but that didn’t necessarily mean that the public had suddenly developed a new appetite for number crunching.
The vast inequality that mars much of the contemporary west, and the United States in particular, is not new: it has slowly set in over a generation or more. But for most of that time—until the 2008 crash—it was relegated to the margins of social science and the political left. Since Piketty’s breakthrough, however, publishers cannot get enough of it.
Since then, we’ve had the political scientist Branko Milanović’s Global Inequality, the late British economist Tony Atkinson’s Inequality: What Can be Done?, and a host of new books interrogating the link with financial instability, such as Matthew P Drennan’s Income Inequality: Why It Matters and Why Most Economists Didn’t Notice. Other, very different, books such as sociologist Robert Putnam’s Our Kids and even JD Vance’s US poverty memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, were successfully marketed as shedding light on the great inequality problem.
So what, at this point, can we hope to glean from Edward N Wolff’s A Century of Wealth in America? It weighs in at over 800 pages, 100 more than Piketty, many of them just as replete with charts, tables and detailed statistical appendices. Yet it remains a remarkably easy and valuable read. That might be less to do with what the book is, than what it is not. Unlike so many other inequality books, and unlike Piketty, this is not a work of grand theory. The great achievement of Wolff, a professor of economics at New York University, is to assemble reams of data, and let his numbers speak for themselves—and they speak very loudly and clearly indeed. Anyone trying to understand the rise of Donald Trump would be well advised to study Wolff closely. Many of the underlying causes of the frustrations that led to last November’s shock vote can be found in these numbers.