American inequality didn’t just happen. It was created. Market forces played a role, but it was not market forces alone. In a sense, that should be obvious: economic laws are universal, but our growing inequality— especially the amounts seized by the upper 1 percent—is a distinctly American “achievement.” That outsize inequality is not predestined offers reason for hope, but in reality it is likely to get worse. The forces that have been at play in creating these outcomes are self-reinforcing.
America’s current level of inequality is unusual. Compared with other countries and compared with what it was in the past even in the United States, it’s unusually large, and it has been increasing unusually fast. It used to be said that watching for changes in inequality was like watching grass grow: it’s hard to see the changes in any short span of time. But that’s not true now.