Mental Floss

Fun with Numbers: America's Growth Divide

Ransom Riggs

We try hard to remain fair and balanced, to borrow a phrase, here at the _floss. That can be tough for a ragin' liberal like myself, so generally my strategy is to just forget politics and blog about cats instead. (It's tough to politicize cats -- unless you're a die-hard cat-hating dog person.) But I ran across something so interesting the other day -- and so seemingly factual, that I felt we could have a civil discussion about it here without ragin' partisanship of any kind muddying the waters. It was an article in the New York Times which pointed to a new study and a new book which tracked various indicators of U.S. economic growth since 1948 under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and looked at the numbers. And very interesting numbers they are!

Here's the meat of it: since 1948, the Dems have held the White House for 26 years and the 'pubs for 34, and during that time the country experienced "average annual growth of real gross national product of 1.64 percent per capita under Republican presidents versus 2.78 percent under Democrats." Now, most economists are quick to point out that a president's fiscal policy has only limited effect on the economy; despite all the bluster from both sides right now about what should be done about our sagging markets/wages/etc, there's really only so much the Oval Officeholder can do. But the numbers are so striking, and the historical gap in economic performance between the two parties so significant, that it deserves examination.

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Yet another Times piece (this one an op-ed) describes what author Dalton Conley calls "economic red shift" amongst the wealthy during times of great income inequality -- and the result is that, though the rich get richer, the pronounced inequality seems to mean that they don't get any happier. "Like the shift in the light spectrum caused by the galaxies rushing away, those Americans who are in the top half of the income distribution experience a sensation that, while they may be pulling away from the bottom half, they are also being left further and further behind by those just above them." So, he argues, the income gap is alienating to everybody, not just those on the bottom end of the spectrum.

And since inequality rises exponentially the higher you climb the economic ladder, the better off you are in absolute terms, the more relatively deprived you may feel. In fact, a poll of New Yorkers found that those who earned more than $200,000 a year were the most likely of any income group to agree that "seeing other people with money" makes them feel poor.

So if we follow that logic, the income gap not only has negative ramifications economically, for those on the lowest rungs of the ladder, but psychologically, for those on the top.

Picture of crazy ladder by Flickr user flowercat.