Forrest Gump’s Lieutenant Dan Faces the Inequality Conundrum

Aug 29, 2016 - 10:00am

Senior Vice President, Economic Policy Division, and Chief Economist


Lieutenant Dan shows up to work on Forrest Gump's shrimpin' boat.

Having effectively abandoned all hope for prosperity, if elected, Hillary Clinton indicates she intends to double down on President Barack Obama’s “Fairness Economy” Doctrine. Both the president and Clinton may want to watch Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump again for a little perspective.

The relevant scene occurs in the first half of the movie when Forrest is learning the shrimpin’ business. Gump saves Lt. Dan’s life in Vietnam, but Dan loses both legs in combat.  Later, after Gump tells of his desire to become a shrimpin’ boat captain in honor of a lost buddy, “Bubba”, Lt. Dan swears if Gump ever buys a shrimpin’ boat, then he would be Gump’s first mate. Lt. Dan never imagined Gump would actually buy a boat. But Gump did, and so true to his word,  Lt. Dan showed up for duty.  They presented a pitiful pair at first.

And then Hurricane Carmen struck. All the other shrimpin’ boats sensibly returned to port where they were then scuttled by the storm, but the two Gilligan’s Island wannabes rode out the storm at sea. During the storm’s fiercest moments, Lt. Dan climbed to the top of the mainmast, hurling challenges to Mother Nature and by extension to God, “Is this the best you’ve got?”

Lt. Dan’s  heartfelt hurricane tirade offers the perfect representation of Obama’s and Clinton’s fairness-based economic policies. Lt. Dan no more influenced the storm than do Obama’s policies to improve fairness, or would those Clinton has proposed. Yet railing on, they persist in their frustration and populist fervor.

The futility of economic policy built on the Fairness Economy doctrine has been apparent for years as Obama has presided over the weakest economic expansion in modern times. Growth has been so anemic for so long for so many that during the primary campaign all the Democratic presidential aspirants bewailed how the economy had failed the middle class. Now it appears this approach to economic policy not only crimps growth, but it fails to do much about inequality.  A recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report provides the evidence.

Consider one measure of inequality—the ratio of the average total wealth of the top 5% of wealth holders to the average of the 50th percentile. Over the course of the Bill Clinton’s administration this ratio rose from about 12.4 to 15.2, indicating a substantial increase in inequality. Over the course of the Bush administration, inequality barely changed, rising from 15.2 to about 15.7.  And for Obama’s fairness economy?  By this measure inequality soared to 23.1 as of 2013, the latest data available. This increase in wealth inequality occurred not because the rich got richer, but because the average wealth of those in the 50th percentile fell from around $130,000 to $81,000 in 2013 dollars. 

This performance was mirrored in other CBO data.  The average wealth of those families in the 51st to 90th percentiles, for instance, peaked at $402,000 in 2007, just before the recession.  As one would expect, average wealth fell during the recession. However, for this group it kept on falling during the expansion, hitting just $316,000 in 2013.  The same pattern plays out for families with even less wealth.  Years after the recession ended, the average wealth of middle class families was still falling.   

In the movie, Gump gets rich and marries his longtime sweetheart, Lt. Dan “made his peace with God” and also gets married, and they all more or less live happily ever after.  That’s Hollywood. In the real world, we’re left with the same old inequalities and a sputtering economy already long in the tooth as history insists a recession lurks somewhere over the horizon.  The CBO data show a “Fairness Economy” Doctrine to reduce inequality tends to reduce economic growth while exacerbating inequality.  Enough already—spreading economic insecurity more uniformly doesn’t help anybody.

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About the Author

About the Author

Senior Vice President, Economic Policy Division, and Chief Economist

Dr. J.D. Foster is senior vice president, Economic Policy Division, and chief economist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He explores and explains developments in the U.S. and global economies.