In his important new book, “The Darwin Economy,” Robert H. Frank of Cornell University cites a study showing that among 65 industrial nations, the more unequal ones experience slower growth on average. Likewise, individual countries grow more rapidly in periods when incomes are more equal, and slow down when incomes are skewed.
That’s certainly true of the United States. We enjoyed considerable equality from the 1940s through the 1970s, and growth was strong. Since then inequality has surged, and growth has slowed.
One reason may be that inequality is linked to financial distress and financial crises. There is mounting evidence that inequality leads to bankruptcies and to financial panics.
“The recent global economic crisis, with its roots in U.S. financial markets, may have resulted, in part at least, from the increase in inequality,” Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry of the International Monetary Fund wrote last month. They argued that “equality appears to be an important ingredient in promoting and sustaining growth.”
Inequality also leads to early deaths and more divorces — a reminder that we’re talking not about data sets here, but about human beings.