The American “Income Revolution”

The American “Income Revolution”

Few claims concerning the direction of the American economy have been more important to social and political theory than the assertion that income has been radically redistributed. The theoretical systems built around this theme have captured the imagination of a very substantial proportion, if not the majority, of social scientists.

David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd is an excellent example of an important contemporary study which is dependent on a theory of income redistribution. To Riesman, the development of a new personality type—the other-directed individual—is concomitant with the shift in the economy from an age of “production” to an age of “consumption.” With this new age has come the “overprivileged two-thirds,” a group whose consumption values are increasingly determined by “peer group” criteria which tend to minimize the use of material goods as pretentious displays of economic and social status. In place of the Veblenian picture of all economic groups consuming and displaying economic status in a hierarchic manner that reflects their access to economic power, we now have, presumably, a tendency to increasingly consume inconspicuously. This reflects, according to Riesman, both the equalitarian views of the “peer group” which sets criteria for consumption behavior, and the economic ability of the “over-privileged two-thirds” to purchase most of the symbols of economic and social status in the original or in virtually equivalent imitations.

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Lima