Home > Plutonomy, upward income redistribution > Inequality and American exceptionalism

Inequality and American exceptionalism

from David Ruccio

American exceptionalism has long been a contested notion.

But there is one area in which the United States has been exceptional from the very declaration of independence: the relative inequality of the distribution of income.

In 1774, the United States was much more equal than England and Wales (and more equal, it seems, than other western societies, such as the Netherlands). Today, more than 200 hundred years later, the United States is more unequal than any of the other advanced capitalist nations.

Thanks to recent research by Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, we know that in 1774 the top 1 percent of households had about 9 percent of income—compared to 17.5 percent in England and Wales, and 17 percent in the Netherlands. 

Today, the top 1 percent of Americans have about 17.5 percent of total income—more than the 14 percent in the United Kingdom and 7 percent for Sweden.

There is , then, a kernel of truth in the idea of American exceptionalism—in terms of relative equality then and obscene levels of inequality now.

  1. July 20, 2012 at 3:22 am

    Bah. Any excuse to bash America. Since you seem to have forgotten, here are a few examples of American exceptionalism:

    – The vast majority of medical advances in the past two hundred years were developed in the United States.
    – Incredible improvements in the standard of living for all Americans as a result of FREEDOM.
    – Which country is ALWAYS at the forefront of humanitarian aid efforts? Not just government sponsored – personal charity. People can’t give if they don’t have it to give in the first place.
    – STILL the only country to put a man on the moon. Exceptional – I would say so.
    – The only country in the world based on the value of individual human life. People in the United states are citizens – not subjects, not parts of a collective, but all equal before the law.

    Does this mean the US is perfect? Of course not. But it is exceptional.

    • Marcel
      August 14, 2012 at 3:56 am

      Martin, you are absolutely right, US is exceptional and I can add a few more examples:
      – the [only] country that has used a nuclear bomb against an ennemy, but not on the battlefield.
      – the country that while having the biggest, best funded and best trained army in the world has failed militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, but was successfull in earning billions for private companies and [some] citizens.
      – the country that lost the war in Vietnam, but insisted it had no war reparations to pay on the contrary insisted that it’s VIetnam that should pay reparations to USA: very rare situation when the looser claims a payment from the winner, but hey USA is exceptional!

      the list of examples of exceptionalism can be continued and those would be not in small domains, but exactly in those in which US is praising itself as being the top performer.

      P.S. I do think that US has provided some exceptional things to world, but as Paul Rosenberg put it: “Clinging to a false sense of superiority is the absolute worst strategy for actually attaining superiority”.

  2. Robert
    July 22, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    Slaves had no income.

  3. Alice
    August 14, 2012 at 11:13 am


    The US hasnt put a man on the moon since I was bout 13 and Im nearly retired.
    America was great but hasnt been for at least 40 years.

    You live the American delsuion and madness of now, not the American dream. That dream is dead. America sold its soul to its eiltes. It allowed the owners of Hamptons estates to take over its government and its democracy. It sold out and enriched its 1% beyond any notions of decencyrelative to the rest of the Americans. It permitted the ultimate greed of the private sector to take over its government. Your government, which is supposed to be for all.

    America sold its own brave heart. Only Americans can fix that.

  4. Alice
    August 14, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Plus the US has lost most of its great producers to China or overseas producers. There are great vast swathes of America that used to be industrial hubs and provide emplyment for many that are now dead zones of unemployment.

    How can that be great? It doesnt sound great because it isnt. America allowed its own corporate sector’s greed to render its own production futile.

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