POLITICS AUGUST 12, 2009
Should we care about economic inequality? That question is the subtext for most debates in American politics. It just remains below the surface because the party that thinks we shouldn't care about inequality--I'll give you one guess--has an endless string of obfuscations ("death tax," "small business," "tollgate to the middle class") to avoid admitting that it doesn't care about inequality.
There are, however, some real reasons not to care about income inequality, and right-wingers who don't have to run for public office are happy to admit it. A new paper by the Cato Institute's Will Wilkinson, which compiles all the reasons why we shouldn't worry our pretty little heads about inequality, has drawn a lot of attention. It's a usefully honest and relatively persuasive iteration of the belief system that undergirds right-wing thought.
Alas, it still isn't very persuasive. Wilkinson begins by pointing out that, while the gap between how much the rich and the non-rich earn has exploded, the gap between how much the rich and the non-rich consume has remained fairly stable. And that's true. But Wilkinson misunderstands the implications of this fact. "Suppose you made a million dollars last year and put all but $50,000 of it in a shoebox," he writes. (He must have enormous feet.) "Now imagine you lose the box. What good did the $950,000 do you?"
Wilkinson's point--money only has value if you eventually spend it--may be true. Yet most rich people don't put their money in shoeboxes. They invest it so they, their children, or young trophy wives can one day spend even more of it. And, indeed, the gap in wealth (how much money you have) has grown even faster than the gap in income. Meanwhile, the middle class has tried to keep pace with the rich by spending beyond its means, sending average household debt skyrocketing. Tell me why this should make us feel better about inequality?
Wilkinson's most interesting argument holds that material inequality between the rich and the non-rich lags behind the wealth and income gaps. For one thing, he argues that the luxury goods rich people own offer only marginal improvement over the cheap stuff that poor people own. For instance, he compares the luxurious Sub-Zero PRO 48 refrigerator to a standard IKEA fridge. Despite the vast difference in cost ($11,000 vs. $350), he writes, "The lived difference ... is rather smaller than that between having fresh meat and milk and having none." He also notes that rich people have used some of their increased income merely bidding up the price of positional goods, like fancy real estate or elite college tuition, forcing them to buy the same stuff at higher prices. Wilkinson thinks this goes to show that there's "an often narrowing range of experience" between being rich and being poor, so inequality isn't that big a deal.
In fact, Wilkinson is inadvertently bolstering the strongest liberal argument against inequality: it's inefficient. In case you're unfamiliar with this argument--as Wilkinson seems to be; he doesn't rebut or even mention it anywhere in his paper--it runs like this: Taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor helps the latter more than it hurts the former (at least until you create serious work-incentive effects, a point which most liberals think we're not close to). Wilkinson is saying the rich are getting little (in the case of luxury goods like refrigerators) or zero (in the case of real estate and higher tuition) actual benefit from their rising incomes. So why not take some of that income away and use it to buy extremely useful but currently unaffordable things for the non-rich, like, oh, basic medical care?
Watch Chait and Wilkinson face off over the inefficiency of inequality (and check out the rest of the debate here)