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Elections in America: It is also about rising equality

By Nora Lustig

(Samuel Z. Stone Professor of Latin American Economics and Director of the Commitment to Equity Institute)

In a recent Washington Post article, President Obama was quoted saying “When we see people, global elites, wealthy corporations seemingly living by a different set of rules, avoiding taxes, manipulating loopholes … this feeds a profound sense of injustice.”1

So, why did so many of the victims of such injustice vote for one of the members of this global elite who lives by different rules such as Trump? Could it be that what aggravates the majority of Trump voters is not that the top 1 percent in the US has been able to reap most of the economic gains in the past decades but, paradoxically, a rise in equality?2 More equality in three dimensions may be feeding a greater sense of unfairness, indignation, and impotence than the increase in income and wealth inequality: the rise of an African-American elite, the empowerment of women, and the legitimation of the gay community’s right to be treated as equals by the law. To be sure, the sense of frustration is driven in part by dwindling economic opportunities for those displaced by technological change and competition from abroad. However, for many the discontent stems from social transformation that threatens their identity, values, and norms. This is my hypothesis.3

First, some facts:

  • In the years from 2005-2013, â’‘¬Å“the income bracket with the largest increase for Black households occurred in the number of households earning over $200,000, with an increase of 138 percent, compared to an increase of 74 percent for the total population.4“ Of course, inequality among blacks is extreme. A Pew Research Study shows that 35 percent of black households have negative or no net worth. However, at the same time, the number of estimated black millionaires went from 25 in the 1960s to 35,000 today. The African-American elite not only has many more millionaires, it also produced a two-term president.5
  • Women now make up almost half of American workers (49.9% in October). They run some of the world’s best companies, such as PepsiCo, Archer Daniels Midland and W.L. Gore. They earn almost 60% of university degrees in America. Women make up the majority of professional workers.6
  • After the US Supreme Court ruled that state-level bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional on June 26, 2015, same-sex marriage became legal in all states. The court ruled that the denial of marriage licenses to same-sex couples and the refusal to recognize those marriages performed in other jurisdictions violates the Due Process and the Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.7

These three phenomena reflect a decline in what social scientists call horizontal inequality: systematic disadvantages across gender, racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual orientation lines. The dawn of the XXIst century showed that blacks can be increasingly elite, women increasingly powerful, and the gay community increasingly socially acceptable and accepted.

There are signs that rising horizontal equality is feeding unhappiness and despair in those left behind by economic transformation, and in those who see their identity and core values unbearably threatened by uncontrollable shifts in mores and norms.8 Here are two startling examples. The discovery that the rise in mortality of high school and below educated white middle-aged men and women between 1999 and 2013 was driven by drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, chronic liver diseases, and cirrhosis.9 The finding that poor black and latinos optimism is juxtaposed against poor white desperation. Poor blacks were found to be three times more likely of being in a higher level of optimism than poor whites.10

There is evidence to suggest that people who voted for Trump are more likely to feel threatened by rising horizontal equality:

  • Supporters of Trump were found more likely to describe African Americans as “criminal,” “unintelligent,” “lazy” and “violent” than voters who backed some Republican rivals in the primaries or who supported Democratic contender Hillary Clinton.11
  • The more hostile voters were toward women, the more likely they were to support Trump.12
  • Two thirds of Republicans are said to oppose same-sex marriage. But also one-third of Democrats do.13 Trump is a consistent opponent of marriage equality.14

Just a thought. If proven true, those of us who think that rising horizontal equality is desirable must find ways to make further progress, if not embraced, at least tolerated by those who think and feel that this kind of progress must be stopped, or – worse – reversed. Rekindling economic opportunities for those left behind by economic progress and globalization is crucial. If I had to choose one policy, it would be this: make college affordable to all. In poll after poll, in study after study, the more educated people are, the more they embrace horizontal equality in the US.


1. Washington Post, November 16, 2016.
2. The disproportional reaping by the top 1% in the United States has been eloquently described by University of California, Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez in “Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States,” June 30, 2016. Saez finds that, for example, “Bottom 99% incomes grew by 3.9% from 2014 to 2015, the best annual growth rate since 1999. Top 1% incomes grew even faster by 7.7% from 2014 to 2015.”
3. Tyler Cowen, the author of the blog “Marginal Revolution,” expressed a similar conjecture in reference to attitudes towards women.
4. “Increasingly Affluent, Educated and Diverse,” Nielsen, 2015.
8. One-third of Americans feel that there is a lot of conflict between their religious beliefs and homosexuality. In this group, opposition to same-sex marriage outweighs support by more than two-to-one.
9. Case, Anne and Angus Deaton (2015). “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 112 (49); 15078-83.
10. Graham, Carol. Happiness for All? Unequal Hopes and Lives in Pursuit of the American Dream (Princeton University Press, forthcoming).


  • Nora Lustig

    Professor - Economics, Samuel Z. Stone Chair of Latin American Economics



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Latin American Writers Series: Alberto Barrera Tyszka

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Ecuadorian writer and Tulane Visiting Scholar Gabriela Alemán interviews Venezuelan writer Alberto Barrera Tyszka about his life, interests, and influences. Their discussion will be followed by an open Q&A and an informal reception. This event will be held in Spanish.

About the Latin American Writers Series

This series brings together Latin America’s most representative creative voices and the editorial entrepreneurs that publish them. By way of interviews conducted by renowned Ecuadorian writer Gabriela Alemán and presentations of various editorial missions, the guests will shed light on a literary world shaped by the contemporary issues of the continent. Moving forward, their conversations will comprise the centerpiece of a digital archive that introduces their ideas to a global audience.

Este serie reúne a los autores más representativos de la escritura continental y los editores que los publican. A través de entrevistas con la reconocida escritora ecuatoriana Gabriela Alemán y presentaciones de proyectos editoriales, los invitados explorarán los vínculos entre el mundo literario y la realidad continental. Sus conversaciones se convertirán después en el eje de un archivo digital que busca llevar estas ideas a un público global.

About the Author

Born in Caracas, Alberto Barrera Tyszka has published over a dozen works of poetry, short story, chronicle, novel, and biography. His most recent publications include the novels Patria o Muerte (2015) and Rating (2011), the poetic anthology La inquietud (2013), the collection of chronicles Un país a la semana (2013), and the short story collection Crímenes (2009). In 2005, he collaborated with Cristina Marcano to write the definitive biography of Hugo Chávez, Hugo Chávez sin uniforme: una historia personal (2005). Patria o muerte won the 2015 Premio Tusquets de Novela, and his novel La enfermedad, translated into English as The Sickness (2010), received the 2006 Herralde Award. Barrera also writes for television and has scripted soap operas for Venezuelan, Mexican, Colombian, and Argentinian networks.