Since an unexpected link from Noam Chomsky (whoa!) has brought it some attention, I may as well take the chance to introduce my book Failure by Design as a piece of evidence in the “morals versus money” debate going on.
David Brooks, channeling Charles Murray, argues that moral/social decay led to the poor economic performance in the bottom half of the income distribution in recent decades. Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, and Larry Mishel (I’m sure I’m missing others) demur – arguing that evidence for the poor economic performance is clear as day while evidence pointing to moral/social decay as an independent cause is awfully unpersuasive. (Wait! Don’t choose sides already based purely on teams – I have more evidence to offer!)
One thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet is that there’s plenty of reason to believe that things besides moral/social decay led to poor economic performance; policy changes alone just about guaranteed this poor performance. As Failure by Design notes, recent decades have seen: the inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage fall for years (almost decades) at a stretch (leaving it still today below its late 1960s peak); an ongoing decline in the share of workers represented by a union (even while the share of workers desiring a union has not much moved); a much-larger share of the total U.S. economy accounted for by trade with much-poorer nations; and a Federal Reserve that has been less and less willing to push back hard against unemployment rates that rise above even their own conservative targets.
Nobody, absolutely nobody, disputes that these things should’ve been expected to do anything but inflict disproportionate harm on low- and moderate-wage workers. The conservative case for making these policy changes was that they would improve overall economic performance and if one was so inclined to make sure that low- and moderate-income workers were not harmed by these policy changes, one could have used the tax/transfer system to redistribute some of these overall gains their way.
I’d complain that not enough of these overall gains have found their way to the bottom half of the income distribution – but it’s awfully hard to believe these overall gains happened at all. Measures of aggregate economic performance are really no better (and are mostly worse) in recent decades even as incomes are shifted.