The Great Polarization: How Ideas, Policies, and Power Drive Inequality

Co-edited by Joseph Stiglitz and Rudiger von Arnim

Inequality of income and wealth has skyrocketed since the 1970s. As the super-rich have grasped the vast majority of the gains from economic growth, labor’s share of income has declined. The middle class has stagnated, and those at the bottom have become even worse off. Persistent structural discrimination on the basis of race and gender exacerbates these economic disparities.

The Great Polarization brings together scholars from disparate fields to examine the causes and consequences of this dramatic rise in inequality. Contributors demonstrate that institutions, norms, policy, and political power—not the “natural” operation of the market—determine the distribution of wealth and income. The book underscores the role of ideas and ideologies, showing how neoclassical economics and related beliefs have functioned in public debates to justify inequality. Together, these essays bear out an inescapable conclusion: inequality is a choice. The rules of the economy have been rewritten to favor those at the top, entrenching the imbalances of power that widen the gap between the very rich and everyone else.

Contributors reconsider the data on inequality, examine the policies that have led to this predicament, and outline potential ways forward. Using both theoretical and empirical analysis and drawing on the knowledge of experts in policy, political economy, economics, and other disciplines, The Great Polarization offers a kaleidoscopic view of the processes that have shaped today’s stark hierarchies.

Read a Columbia News interview with Professor Stiglitz about The Great Polarization.