Timothy Noah's book The Great Divergence is interesting and well-written, an easy read, for the most part, and loaded with information from a broad and varied range of sources. As Noah acknowledges, there is nothing really new in the book, and folks who have an abiding interest in income inequality, its causes and consequences, will find themselves in familiar territory. However, for a reader who has not been pretty thoroughly immersed in this literature for the last decade or so, there is just too much information to assimilate in a brief period. The Great Divergence runs just under two hundred pages, but much of the material presented is statistical in nature, and though it's not hard to understand, there is just too much to remember, even in a general way, unless the reader takes the time to absorb it.
As one might imagine from the title, Noah's work will not appeal to all readers. It seems quite clear that its approval rating will be pretty high among those who lean a bit to what passes for the left in this day and age, but the same evaluation will be abysmally low among those on the right. There was a time, say thirty or forty years ago, when forecasts such as this were not so easily made. After all, the Republican Richard Nixon was President when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency were created, and Nixon was the last President to impose broad-based wage and price controls. Whatever the value of these endeavors, today they would be anathema to just about any Republican and to most Blue-Dog Democrats, inviting characterization as manifestations of up-dated Stalinism. The polarization of political life in the U.S. makes it easy to anticipate how readers from broad-gauged political categories will respond to Noah's discussion, leaving him preaching to the choir. Inadequate incomes and uncertainty as to the future are primary sources of the acrimonious ideological divisions among us, and both serve the interests of those at the very top of the income distribution
While Noah takes pains to be factually accurate, he, as with any author, gets to select which facts are pertinent, just as he was the one who decided that earnings inequality is an issue that merits being treated at length. Nevertheless, he gives fairly compelling evidence of citing and consulting social scientists on both the left and the right. Yes, he's much more likely to agree with interpretations provided by by the liberal economist Paul Krugman than the conservative economist Finis Welch, but he seems determined not to misrepresent the views of anyone. If he relies too heavily on Krugman, this may be simply because left-of-center economists are far less numerous than conservative ones, a set of circumstances that is tied to the prevailing neo-classical and monetarist orthodoxy.
While I find myself in general agreement with Noah's point of view, he makes what I take to be some pretty serious errors in judgment with regard to the nature and location of the great divergence. Income inequality among the lower eighty percent of the population is troublesome, in my view, only because there are so many people in this range who have incomes so meager as to make bare survival problematic and a commonsensically decent way of living impossible. Even those whom Noah identifies as occupying the very middle of the middle class are just squeaking by, especially if they have children. That damaging set of circumstances is exacerbated, moreover, by the fact that family incomes in this group are more or less adequate only because most families have two or more bread-winners, and many still barely manage. Rick Santorum may really believe that women put their kids in day care and go to work in search of occupational fulfillment, but it's really due to economic necessity. In short, The Great Divergence is not located in the lower four quintiles of the income distribution. Most of these folks are getting pretty thoroughly ripped off. The Great Divergence that matters occurs at the highest income levels
Noah's recourse to education, the college educated as compared to those with lesser attainments, is similarly misleading. Today, education of any sort and any level is a gamble. There are no long-term -- maybe not even any medium term -- guarantees with regard to choice of major or kind of training. Until I retired in May of 2010, I taught for twenty-three years at a mid-sized state university. Graduates, including folks with graduate degrees, were often unable to find anything better than low-wage, no-benefits grunt work when they left school. Nationally, payoffs for investments in higher education are routinely over-estimated. Yes, it's better to have a degree than not have one, but payoffs in terms of purchasing power have been declining for at least three decades. At the highest income levels, moreover, education is not even tenuously related to the pernicious enormity of pecuniary attainments, the wealth of the controlling elite.
If we construe income inequality as a problem, it's one that does not have an educational solution. Noah's uncritical acknowledgment of the Reagan Administration's trashing of public education in A Nation at Risk, blaming it for every imaginable social problem, including declining real incomes for most of us, is disappointing.
On the other hand, the author's observation that workers' incomes are no longer tied to productivity is right on the mark. The same is true of his judgment that institutional and cultural changes have left us defenseless against the encroachment of a Banana Republic-style unwillingness and inability to take concerted collective action against the devaluation of our workforce. The Reaganesque rugged individualism that has left us without a sense of national community has had politically devastating effects, reducing our electorate to powerlessness when faced with ever-more meager opportunities. The Great Divergence, properly construed, has put the very wealthy in a position of economic and political control over the rest of us. More and more, they decide what jobs are created and destroyed, what wage rates prevail, what constitutes the material rudiments of an acceptable life style, and their big-bucks buying power has given them ever-greater control of the political life of the nation. One consequence of this is that income attainment has become at least as heritable from generation to generation as physical attributes such as height! Truly astonishing, and to the author's credit that he gives this finding its due.
This book is not for everyone, but it is an honest and informed journalistic effort to explain the causes and consequences of income inequality. In that sense, in spite of occasional missteps, the author has succeeded admirably. As with most critically evaluative treatments of important aspects of American society, however, the author's remedies do not inspire hope: they are either substantively misguided or politically near-impossible. Readers might do well to skip the last chapter, though I'm sure Noah did his best with it. When solutions to social problems are not known, it does not reflect adversely on an author if he fails to find any.