More Than Cannon Fodder

Reuters’ Chrystia Freeland has a nice post on the connection between non-discrimination and economic productivity, citing a new economic study that makes the relationship tangible:

Chang-Tai Hsieh, Erik Hurst, Charles Jones and Peter Klenow argue that as much as 20 percent of the growth in productivity in the United States over the past 50 years can be attributed to expanded opportunities for women and blacks.

“Changes in things that have affected women or blacks specifically have yielded a sizable impact on overall U.S. earnings growth,” Hurst told me. “That is a big effect.”

Freelander goes on to argue cogently that an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation would also have a beneficial economic effect. But it’s her conclusion about a new study underway from the same economists who did the earlier analysis that’s most striking:

“We suspect that similar barriers facing children from less affluent families and from regions of the country hit by adverse economic shocks have worsened in the last few decades,” the economists write. “If so, this could explain both the adverse trends in aggregate productivity and the fortunes of less-skilled Americans over the last decades.”

Hurst made sure I understood that this final point was just a hypothesis. The economists plan to run it through their model over the next few months and report on their results later this year. But if their theory pans out, their work will tell a story about America over the past 50 years that many of us intuitively will feel to be true – a country that discriminates less and less on the basis of gender, race and now sexual orientation, but where the class divide is becoming so stark as to constitute a new form of discrimination.

Empirical evidence that inequality breeds on itself and holds back economic progress for everyone would be a nice rejoinder to those who explicitly or implicitly claim that wealthy “job creators” are the only contributors to growth, leaving the rest of us to serve as cannon fodder in the wars of creative destruction our superiors wage in the search for maximum profits (presumably the “hard work” and “personal responsibility” conservatives often urge us peons to display is supposed to be its own reward). We already know this to a considerable extent from both common sense and historical experience, and there is also the small matter of inequality offending traditional values. But it would be nice to shove a nice fat study into the craws of politicians and opinion-leaders who are ever ready to tell people struggling to get by that ever-increasing inequality is for their own good.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.