(Cross-Posted at www.progressivefix.com -- I'm late adding these to my blog....)
Happy New Year everyone! I am very late to this debate, but I wanted to weigh in on the conversation launched by Dalton Conley’s pre-holiday American Prospect article on progressivism and inequality. In case you missed it, Conley argued that progressives shouldn’t care that much about inequality and that we should instead care about the poor. Inequality, he showed, has grown between the rich and the middle, but not between the middle and the poor. Bruce Bartlett, weighing in from the right, agreed.
I’ll address the living standards of the middle class and the poor in subsequent posts, but let me add my two cents about inequality trends in this one. An analysis I conducted back in November showed that what has likely happened is that the very top—the top one-half of one percent—has pulled away from everyone else, though the increase from 1980 to 2009 has probably been fairly modest. Whether this has been a good or bad thing—or aside from trends, whether higher inequality in the U.S. than elsewhere is a good or bad thing—ought to depend on three questions, empirical and normative, none of which we have much of a handle on.
First, how does letting the rich get richer affect the absolute living standards of everyone else? As Alan Reynolds has argued, measures of inequality tend to reinforce a fixed-pie conception of national wealth—gains by the rich come at the expense of everyone else. But of course, the pie is not fixed in size, and it may be that allowing the rich to get a greater share of the pie makes for a bigger pie and bigger slices for everyone (a point made by Bartlett). Think about Rawls’s maximin rule—that any inequality that results in the worst-off being better off is just. It’s not necessarily the case that greater inequality must help out those who fall behind, but it’s certainly plausible.
Second, how does letting the rich get richer affect the relative deprivation experienced by everyone else? There are two questions here. When the rich get richer, people at the bottom and even in the middle may get priced out of certain goods and services, as prices get bid up by the wealthy. On the one hand, it may be that yachts become less affordable to the non-rich, which presumably no one would get too worked up about. On the other hand, if the price of an Ivy League education or prime neighborhoods becomes unaffordable to the non-rich, that would have bigger implications. Beyond the issue of being priced out of goods and services, inequality may make the non-rich feel less well off—even if their absolute living standards improve. If the Nissan Sentra you own is nicer than the Chevy Cobalt you used to have but feels no better since more people are driving Jaguars than in the past, then there’s room for debate about whether you are “better off”.
Third, if inequality makes most people better off in absolute terms (by making the pie bigger) but makes them feel worse off in relative terms (if their bigger piece feels smaller than before because of how much bigger others’ slices have gotten), then how much weight are we to give each effect? Unlike the other two considerations, this one has empirical and normative dimensions. You may think that being better off but feeling worse off is a net change for the worse, while I may think that it’s only being better off that matters. Robert Frank has made the case—not entirely convincingly, in my view—for the former view.
If you’re looking for the answer to these questions in a blog post, then my heart goes out to you. What I will say is that a situation in which the top 1 in 200 pulls away from the bottom 199 is quite a bit different than a situation in which the top 40 pulls away from the bottom 160, since relative deprivation is likely to be a bigger problem in the latter case.
More to the point, reflexive soak-the-rich tendencies among progressives are unjustified—the details and the facts matter, unless you simply are opposed to inequality regardless of whether it might help the bottom and middle.
Middle-class living standards next…