The New Deal reversed the flow of income and wealth to the rich. For 25 years after World War II, strong labor unions and government policy committed to raising the income of the great majority ensured that all Americans benefited from our country’s rising productivity and increasing income.
Advocates of laissez faire economics warned that we would pay for egalitarian policies with slower economic growth because we need inequality to encourage the rich to invest and the creative to invent. But the high costs of inequality in reduced social cooperation and wasted human capital point to the giant flaws in this view. A more egalitarian income distribution provides better incentives for investment, and our economy functions much better when people can afford to buy goods and services.
The New Deal ushered in a period of unusually rapid and steady economic growth with the greatest gains going to the poor and the middle-class. Strong unions ensured that wages rose with productivity, government tax and spending policies helped to share the benefits of growth with the poor, the retired and the disabled. From 1947-‘73, the bottom 90 percent received over two-thirds of economic growth.
Then, the political coalition behind the New Deal fragmented in the 1960s. Opponents seized the moment and reversed its policies. They began to funnel income toward the rich. With a policy agenda loosely characterized as “neoliberalism,” conservatives (including much of the economics profession) have swept away the New Deal’s focus on employment and economic equity to concentrate economic policy on fighting inflation by strengthening capital against labor. That has worked out very badly for most of America.
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