49 of 56 people found the following review helpful
not a natural
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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.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
John P. Jones III
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Timothy Noah is a journalist by trade; he had produced a solid book largely documenting the economic reality of "the rich getting richer," and the poor becoming more the inverse, which has indisputably occurred in America over the last 30 years. In the introduction Noah states that the title to this book was first utilized by Nobel Prize winner, and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman, in his 2007 book The Conscience of a Liberal. Noah's book is replete with sufficient numbers, graphs, and references to other economic works to prove that the rich have become much richer, at the relative expense of virtually everyone else. The last "Gilded Age" ended with the Great Depression of the `30's. Afterwards, for almost 50 years, incomes of Americans tended to converge, a phenomenon that Noah calls the "Great Compression." Starting at the beginning of the `80's, incomes commenced their divergence, and have again attained the extremes of the `20's Gilded Age.
Why have the vast majority of Americans tolerated the trend whereby so much wealth is concentrated in the hands of so few? Of course, not all have, as witnessed by the "Occupy Wall Street" protests. But Noah postulates, and I would concur, that at least one reason is the enduring myth of upward mobility. Like the billboards that we have here in Albuquerque, touting the latest winner at a casino, it is as though we all have the chance to win - as indeed we do!- but that masks, and is its own diversion from the central reality that most players in a casino lose, just as most Americans are losing in the wealth game to the very few. Noah devotes one chapter to debunking the upward mobility myth. One's own wealth (or lack of it!) in America is highly correlated to one's parent's wealth, far more so than virtually all the countries of "Old Europe."
How has the Great Divergence come to be? The author covers the "usual suspects" as he calls them, in several chapters, which constitute about half the book. These include immigration, both legal and illegal, "offshoring" work, both in manufacturing and service industries, social trends such as the increase in single parent households, and the increase cost of higher education. There is an entire chapter on "unequal government," as indeed it is. Noah repeats Warren Buffet's observation that he pays less, in terms of a percentage of income, than anyone else who works for him. And there was the stunning alacrity with which the Fed bailed out, in full, the many "villains" of the 2008 financial meltdown, the financial firms, by "expanding the Fed's balance sheet," by buying up "toxic" assets, while the victims were left to "tighten their belts." I found the author's chapter on the "Treaty of Detroit" most informative: how, after World War II, labor and management developed a workable consensus on sharing the wealth. Alas, that "treaty" is in the "dustbin of history."
In the penultimate chapter Noah refutes the various ideas flogged by the well-funded right-wing "think tanks" that promote the idea(s) that the Great Divergence doesn't matter, or is "inevitable," or can't be changed, or, most outrageously, is actually a good thing! The author concludes with what we can do to reverse the Divergence. Some of the ideas have gained increasing acceptance, particularly since they have worked before, such as "soaking the rich" (i.e., increase the tax rate on the extremely wealthy to at least the rate it was during the `90's), public works projects as we had in the `30's, with the workers on governmental payrolls, and reregulating Wall Street. Some ideas seemed marginal, at best, such as universalizing preschool, and a couple seemed outright crazy, such as importing more skilled labor (!) as though there was a shortage, and imposing price controls on college tuition.
Noah's documentation and analysis of the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the very few is timely and accurate. I was somewhat disappointed that some issues were omitted or glossed over, as well as in terms of his proposals for remediation. For example, how very effective the "think tanks" and media outlets (read: Fox News) that are owned, or funded by the very rich, have been in convincing so many whose pockets have been picked that this is the "natural state of affairs," if not, "the best of all possible worlds." Noah could have drawn upon, and expanded the themes in Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Noah celebrates public parks, a point that strongly resonates with me. However, should he not also have been addressing some fundamental philosophical issues, which certainly the ancient Greeks wrestled with, like: What is the ultimate ratio between extreme wealth and extreme poverty that should be viewed as acceptable in a society? Isn't that at least as valid a concern as the age at which a young adult can grant sexual consent? His book is a five and a half star topic, with a 4-star execution.