PREVIOUSLY, ON EDGE OF THE AMERICAN WEST: urbino asked whether our era resembles the Gilded Age. I said yes and no: while there’s a lot of inequality now as then, but the inequality in the Gilded Age was measurable across states and so was a regional factor, while now this is less true. This matters, because owing to our quirkily endearing and frankly mad institution of the Senate (which is echoed in the Electoral College), regions matter more than people.1

Then silbey (Man of the People) said I was wrong, and ignorant of the nation’s midsection. Am I?

ANSWER:

As the excellent Kris James Mitchener and Ian W. MacLean, in “U.S. Regional Growth and Convergence, 1880-1980,” (Journal of Economic History 59, no. 4, 1016-42) find, “on average, states that had lower incomes in 1880 have grown faster than higher income states over the subsequent 100 years such that the gap in relative incomes between the lowest and highest income states is smaller today than in 1880 and differences in per capita income across states have declined over this period.” (1020)

And, they find, this is true even if you take into account the differences in prices across regions. So for example, on their data, the richest state’s personal income in 1880 is eight and a half times the poorest state’s, whereas in 1980, it’s only about one and a half times the poorest state’s.

So it’s true that the distribution of riches across states, and thus across regions, has become less unequal over time. Here’s a graph, showing standard deviations of state price-adjusted per capita incomes expressed as a percentage of the mean state price-adjusted per capita incomes, over a hundred years.

stdevs.jpg

So I am right, right? Well, no: not exactly. But I don’t have time to explain why just now! So you can wait on tenterhooks, and guess why, till I can come back after teaching and elaborate.


1There is a reason other countries don’t look at the U.S. Constitution and say, “Oh, let’s copy the Senate. Because then the government can put a fence around an empty rectangle, call it a ‘state,’ and monkey with the membership of the greatest deliberative body in the world.” I’m not naming any state names, but you know who you are.