Inequality fell in most countries from the 1940s to the 1970s. The inequality we see today is largely due to changes since 1980.
In both the US and the UK, from 1980 to 2016, the share of total income going to the top 1% has more thandoubled. After allowing for inflation, the earnings of the bottom 90% in the US and UK have barely risen at all over the past 25 years.
Since 1980 some countries have experienced a big increase in inequality (the US and the UK); some have seen a much smaller increase (Canada, Japan, Italy), while inequality has been stable or falling in others (France, Belgium and Hungary).
The idea that rising inequality is inevitable begins to look like a convenient myth, one that allows us to avoid thinking about another possibility: that through our electoral choices and decisions in daily life we have supported rising inequality, or at least acquiesced in it.
One crucial reason why we have done so little to reduce inequality in recent years is that we downplay the role of luck in achieving success.
Attitude surveys have consistently shown that, compared to US residents, Europeans are roughly twice as likely to believe that luck is the main determinant of income and that the poor are trapped in poverty. Similarly, people in the US are about twice as likely as Europeans to believe that the poor are lazy and that hard work leads to higher quality of life in the long run.
Yet in fact, the poor (the bottom 20%) work roughly the same total annual hours in the US and Europe. And economic opportunity and intergenerational mobility is more limited in the US than in Europe.
European countries have, on average, more redistributive tax systems and more welfare benefits for the poor than the US, and therefore less inequality, after taxes and benefits.
Inequality begets further inequality. As the top 1% grow richer, they have more incentive and more ability to enrich themselves further. They exert more and more influence on politics, from election-campaign funding to lobbying over particular rules and regulations.
Much of the inequality we see today in richer countries is more down to decisions made by governments than to irreversible market forces. These decisions can be changed. However, we have to want to control inequality: we must make inequality reduction a central aim of government policy and wider society.