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Unbound: How Inequality Constricts Our Economy and What We Can Do about it

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From one of Washington’s most influential voices on economic policy, a lively and original argument that reducing inequality is not just fair but also key to delivering broadly shared economic growth and stability.

Do we have to choose between equality and prosperity? Many think that reducing economic inequality would require such heavy-handed interference with market forces that it would stifle economic growth. Heather Boushey, one of Washington’s most influential economic voices, insists nothing could be further from the truth. Presenting cutting-edge economics with journalistic verve, she shows how rising inequality has become a drag on growth and an impediment to a competitive United States marketplace for employers and employees alike.

Boushey argues that inequality undermines growth in three ways. It obstructs the supply of talent, ideas, and capital as wealthy families monopolize the best educational, social, and economic opportunities. It also subverts private competition and public investment. Powerful corporations muscle competitors out of business, in the process costing consumers, suppressing wages, and hobbling innovation, while governments underfund key public goods that make the American Dream possible, from schools to transportation infrastructure to information and communication technology networks. Finally, it distorts consumer demand as stagnant wages and meager workplace benefits rob ordinary people of buying power and pushes the economy toward financial instability.

Boushey makes this case with a clear, accessible tour of the best of contemporary economic research, while also injecting a passion for her subject gained through years of research into the economics of work–life conflict and policy work in the trenches of federal government. Unbound exposes deep problems in the U.S. economy, but its conclusion is optimistic. We can preserve the best of our nation’s economic and political traditions, and improve on them, by pursuing policies that reduce inequality—and by doing so, boost broadly shared economic growth.

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Boushey Heather
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Heather Boushey is President and CEO of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth and former Chief Economist on Hillary Clinton’s transition team. She is the author of Finding Time: The Economics of Work–Life Conflict and coeditor of After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality (both from Harvard). The New York Times has called Boushey one of the “most vibrant voices in the field” and Politico twice named her one of the top 50 “thinkers, doers, and visionaries transforming American politics.”

  • List of Figures and Tables*
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • I. How Inequality Obstructs
    • 1. Learning and Human Capital
    • 2. Skills, Talent, and Innovation
  • II. How Inequality Subverts
    • 3. Public Spending
    • 4. Market Structure
  • III. How Inequality Distorts
    • 5. The Economic Cycle
    • 6. Investment
  • Conclusion: The Economic Imperative of Equitable Growth
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
  • * Figures and Tables
    • Figures
      • I.1.
        • a. Average growth is used to represent most Americans’ experience
        • b. Only the top 10 percent have seen above-average income growth
      • I.2. Wealth is increasingly concentrated at the top
      • I.3. Recent generations are less likely to earn more than their parents
      • 1.1. Early childhood education has important lifetime outcomes
      • 1.2. Moving to a different US neighborhood as a child affects income in adulthood
      • 1.3. School spending levels matter for adult poverty
      • 1.4. College completion gaps persist and grow
      • 2.1. Patent rates vary with parents’ incomes
      • 2.2. Patent rates vary with third-grade math test scores
        • a. By parental income
        • b. By race and ethnicity
        • c. By gender
      • 2.3. Women in economics are held to higher standards
      • 3.1. There is no obvious relationship between top tax rates and growth rates
      • 3.2. Inequality and political polarization have risen in tandem
      • 4.1. Market concentration has risen in recent decades
      • 4.2. Startup rates are declining
      • 4.3. Share of income going to labor has declined over time
      • 4.4. Employment is increasingly concentrated
      • 5.1. Household debt has grown significantly since the 1950s
      • 5.2. Mortgage debt has grown over time
      • 6.1. The wealthy are more likely to save their income
      • 6.2. Firms are holding more cash as a share of net assets
      • C.1. Disaggregating national income is revealing
        • a. Aggregate numbers say nothing about how growth is distributed
        • b. Disaggregation shows growth flowing to high-income Americans
    • Tables
      • 4.1. Share of revenue earned by the largest US firms is on the rise
      • C.1. What we’ve learned about how economic inequality affects economic growth and stability
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