Even in a world of polarisation, fake news and social media, some beliefs remain universal, and central to today’s politics. None is more influential than the idea that inequality has risen in the rich world. People read about it in newspapers, hear about it from their politicians and feel it in their daily lives. This belief motivates populists, who say selfish metropolitan elites have pulled the ladder of opportunity away from ordinary people. It has given succour to the left, who propose ever more radical ways to redistribute wealth (see article). And it has caused alarm among business people, many of whom now claim to pursue a higher social purpose, lest they be seen to subscribe to a model of capitalism that everyone knows has failed.
In many ways the failure is real. Opportunities are restricted. The cost of university education in America has spiralled beyond the reach of many families. Across the rich world, as rents and house prices have soared, it has become harder to afford to live in the successful cities which contain the most jobs (see Free exchange). Meanwhile, the rusting away of old industries has concentrated poverty in particular cities and towns, creating highly visible pockets of deprivation. By some measures inequalities in health and life expectancy are getting worse.
Yet precisely because the idea of soaring inequality has become an almost universally held belief, it receives too little scrutiny. That is a mistake, because the four empirical pillars upon which the temple rests—which are not about housing or geography, but income and wealth—are not as firm as you might think. As our briefing this week explains, these four pillars are being shaken by new research.