In the four decades between 1969 and 2008, economists played a leading role in slashing taxation of the wealthy and in curbing public investment. They supervised the deregulation of major sectors, including transportation and communications. They lionized big business, defending the concentration of corporate power, even as they demonized trade unions and opposed worker protections like minimum wage laws. Economists even persuaded policymakers to assign a dollar value to human life — around $10 million in 2019 — to assess whether regulations were worthwhile.
The revolution, like so many revolutions, went too far. Growth slowed and inequality soared, with devastating consequences. Perhaps the starkest measure of the failure of our economic policies is that the average American’s life expectancy is in decline, as inequalities of wealth have become inequalities of health. Life expectancy rose for the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans between 1980 and 2010. Over the same three decades, life expectancy declined for the poorest 20 percent of Americans. Shockingly, the difference in average life expectancy between poor and wealthy women widened from 3.9 years to 13.6 years.
Rising inequality also is straining the health of liberal democracy. The idea of “we the people” is fading because, in this era of yawning inequality, there is less we share in common.