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Thinking Clearly about Economic Inequality, Cato Policy Analysis No. 640

Thinking Clearly about Economic Inequality, Cato Policy Analysis No. 640

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Published by Cato Institute
Recent discussions of economic inequality,
marked by a lack of clarity and care, have confused
the public about the meaning and moral
significance of rising income inequality. Income
statistics paint a misleading picture of real standards
of living and real economic inequality.
Several strands of evidence about real standards
of living suggest a very different picture of the
trends in economic inequality. In any case, the
dispersion of incomes at any given time has, at
best, a tenuous connection to human welfare or
social justice. The pattern of incomes is affected
by both morally desirable and undesirable mechanisms.
When injustice or wrongdoing increases
income inequality, the problem is the original
malign cause, not the resulting inequality. Many
thinkers mistake national populations for "society"
and thereby obscure the real story about the
effects of trade and immigration on welfare,
equality, and justice. There is little evidence that
high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery
slope to the destruction of democracy and
rule by the rich. The unequal political voice of the
poor can be addressed only through policies that
actually work to fight poverty and improve education.
Income inequality is a dangerous distraction
from the real problems: poverty, lack of economic
opportunity, and systemic injustice.
Recent discussions of economic inequality,
marked by a lack of clarity and care, have confused
the public about the meaning and moral
significance of rising income inequality. Income
statistics paint a misleading picture of real standards
of living and real economic inequality.
Several strands of evidence about real standards
of living suggest a very different picture of the
trends in economic inequality. In any case, the
dispersion of incomes at any given time has, at
best, a tenuous connection to human welfare or
social justice. The pattern of incomes is affected
by both morally desirable and undesirable mechanisms.
When injustice or wrongdoing increases
income inequality, the problem is the original
malign cause, not the resulting inequality. Many
thinkers mistake national populations for "society"
and thereby obscure the real story about the
effects of trade and immigration on welfare,
equality, and justice. There is little evidence that
high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery
slope to the destruction of democracy and
rule by the rich. The unequal political voice of the
poor can be addressed only through policies that
actually work to fight poverty and improve education.
Income inequality is a dangerous distraction
from the real problems: poverty, lack of economic
opportunity, and systemic injustice.

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Published by: Cato Institute on Jul 14, 2009
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Recent discussions of economic inequality,marked by a lack of clarity and care, have con-fused the public about the meaning and moralsignificance of rising income inequality. Incomestatistics paint a misleading picture of real stan-dards of living and real economic inequality.Several strands of evidence about real standardsof living suggest a very different picture of thetrends in economic inequality. In any case, thedispersion of incomes at any given time has, atbest, a tenuous connection to human welfare orsocial justice. The pattern of incomes is affectedby both morally desirable and undesirable mech-anisms. When injustice or wrongdoing increasesincome inequality, the problem is the originalmalign cause, not the resulting inequality. Many thinkers mistake national populations for “soci-ety” and thereby obscure the real story about theeffects of trade and immigration on welfare,equality, and justice. There is little evidence thathigh levels of income inequality lead down a slip-pery slope to the destruction of democracy andrule by the rich. The unequal political voice of thepoor can be addressed only through policies thatactually work to fight poverty and improve edu-cation. Income inequality is a dangerous distrac-tion from the real problems: poverty, lack of eco-nomic opportunity, and systemic injustice.
Thinking Clearly about Economic Inequality
by Will Wilkinson
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________
Will Wilkinson is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and editor of 
Cato Unbound
.
Executive Summary 
No. 640July 14, 2009
 
Introduction
“We are now living in a new Gilded Age, asextravagant as the original,” says the NobelPrize–winning Princeton economist and
 NewYork Times
columnist Paul Krugman.
1
In thedays of Krugman’s youth, “the economic dis-parities you were conscious of were quite mut-ed.” But that America is “another country,”Krugman says. Once, the AFL-CIO was a fix-ture of nature, even Ike liked the New Deal,and lawyers and longshoremen felt themselvesto be peers—as men, and as Americans. Today,the income gap is as wide as it was when therobber barons built lavish mansions and keptsenators as pets. And today’s gap is just asmalign.“The United States doesn’t have ThirdWorld levels of economic inequality—yet,”Krugman warns. “But it is not hard to foresee,in the current state of our political and eco-nomic scene, the outline of a transformationinto a permanently unequal society—one thatlocks in and perpetuates the drastic econom-ic polarization that is already dangerously faradvanced.”
2
That we have so far failed to graspthe dangers attests to “the growing influenceof our emerging plutocracy,” which has bus-ied itself denying and obscuring the reality of the new era of inequality.
3
What is to be done? Economists ThomasPiketty and Emmanuel Saez, experts on themeasurement of income inequality, havefound that “the top 1 percent income share hasincreased dramatically in recent decades.” They conclude that “it is obvious that the progres-sive income tax should be the central elementof the debate when thinking about what to doabout the increase in inequality.”
4
ForKrugman, a corresponding bump in the open-handedness of the welfare state is also recom-mended, as is the resuscitation of the mori-bund labor movement—not to mention a campaign of disapproval aimed at the balefulchanges in culture (precipitated by the propa-ganda campaigns of so-called “movement con-servatives”) that have permitted executivesalaries to soar with neither resentment norshame.
5
Krugman surely speaks for many when he argues that democracy is itself atstake:Even if the forms of democracy remain,they may become meaningless. It’s alltoo easy to see how we may become a country in which the big rewards arereserved for people with the right con-nections; in which ordinary people seelittle hope of advancement; in whichpolitical involvement seems pointless,because in the end the interests of theelite always get served.
6
This is a dark portrait—a nightmare for lib-erals of any stripe—and its realization is to bepassionately resisted. It is in fact realized inmuch of the world, and it is a time-testedrecipe for misery and strife. But is this really where we’re headed if the income gap does notcontract?For many citizens, politicians, and celebrat-ed scholars (such as Krugman), high and ris-ing levels of income inequality are just wrong;they obviously pose a danger to the ideal of anopen-textured liberal society where disadvan-tages need not be permanent, where advan-tages of birth and good fortune do not createa self-sustaining structure of supremacy andhumiliating subordination, and where all citi-zens enjoy the respect due to free persons whoare equal under the law.But should this seem so obvious? Are themillions who nod along with Krugman cor-rect? Is American income inequality really anexistential threat to the democratic values atthe heart of our political culture? Does itthreaten imminently to transform the UnitedStates into an irreversibly stratified illiberalregime, dominated generation after generationby the rich and well-connected?Well, no. It should not seem obvious that American income inequality imperils justiceor threatens to gut our democracy, because itisn’t true. You don’t have to be duped by theplutocracy to find Krugman’s line of thinking,so representative of the views of left-leaning Americans, badly misguided. Paul Krugman is
2
Is Americanincomeinequality really an existentialthreat to thedemocratic valuesat the heart of ourpolitical culture?
 
without question a brilliant economist, and heis perhaps the most talented communicator of economic ideas of our era. He’s the most rig-orous and forceful public intellectual of today’s American left. But in this paper I’llargue that Krugman-like conceptions of thereality and immorality of economic inequality in America reflect a tangle of conceptual errorsand a mix of questionable moral assumptions.The public discussion of inequality in theUnited States, and no doubt elsewhere, ismarked by a lack of clarity and care. Publicdeliberation and debate about it are thereforeconfusing, and a lot of people are confused.Few commentators—even among those whoare professional economists—speak clearly about what the various measures of economicinequality do and do not tell us. And it is rarely made clear how these measures relate to whatis valuable about equality as a political ideal.What is it that is supposed to make economicinequality in general—or income inequality inparticular—so deeply worrying? Much likeconservatives who warn firmly that legalizinggay marriage will destroy the American family,many liberals warn firmly of the disasters thatunchecked income inequality will bring—without pausing to explain how the cause willcreate the evil effect. We can do better, and theaim of this paper is to show how.In what follows, I’ll seek to clarify the mainideas involved in thinking about the reality and morality of economic inequality. Thepoint of this is to help us to
get the descriptive story straight aboutinequality in America;
evaluate inequality according to reason-able, broadly liberal standards that areaccepted by most Americans; and
clarify the relationship between econom-ic inequality and the freedom and well-being of the least advantaged.There are limits to what I can do in a singlepaper. For instance, I can’t offer a full accountof the value of equality, the harm of inequality,or the relevance of economic inequality tosocial justice. Even if I could, moral and politi-cal concepts may be “essentially contestable,”which is to say that we’re going to fight aboutthem forever. One reason the fight never endsis that free societies inevitably produce wilddiversity in thinking about morality and poli-tics. If a slightly new way of filling in the mean-ing of “liberty,” “equality,” or “justice” becomespopular, it will tend to change our politics, andhundreds of millions of lives, in a way thatsome will celebrate and others will resent. As a free society, we keep fighting because it mattersto us.This paper is meant as a small sally in thatperpetual contest. Although I can’t hope tosettle the big questions, I will offer a numberof arguments meant to support one way of thinking about equality and political morality and to call into question another, more wide-spread way of thinking about them. My goal isto illustrate as forcefully as I can that there is a morally deep and analytically rigorous alterna-tive to the conventional way of thinking aboutthese questions. At the very least, I call intoquestion the cogency of some remarkably common assumptions about equality andpolitical morality that appear again and againin textbooks, media reports, and public dis-cussions.Right now, we are in the depths of a reces-sion, and our attention is riveted to the ques-tion of reviving economic growth, so theissue of how the fruits of growth are distrib-uted has receded in salience. But it remains of fundamental importance, as attitudes aboutrising inequality during the “Long Boom”will have a huge impact on the way in whichthe restructuring of economic policymakingnow under way proceeds.One last thing: Paul Krugman’s recent best-seller,
The Conscience of a Liberal 
, contains anaccount of the rise of what he calls movementconservatism. In effect, Krugman’s story poi-sons the well from which this paper is drawn, soit seems necessary to say something about it.“Movement conservatism,” Krugman main-tains, “is financed by a handful of extremely wealthy individuals and a number of major cor-porations, all of whom stand to gain fromincreased inequality. . . . Turning back the clock
3
The publicdiscussion of inequality ismarked by a lackof clarity andcare.

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