Income inequality has been around as long as humans have had incomes, yet over the past year it has been presented as one of our economy’s greatest injustices. With so much shoddy zero-sum reasoning being presented, it’s refreshing to find an economist who can apply both sound economic and Biblical thinking to the topic.
Over on First Things, Michael W. Hannon, David J. Pederson, and Peter A. Blair write about the injustices of inequality. In many parts of their short article they had me nodding in agreement. But as with much that is written about income and wealth inequality, the article makes assertions that seem to have no basis in economic reality. For instance, the authors seem to claim that income inequality leads to power inequality which “harms civic friendship.” (more…)
“Charity rejoices in our neighbor’s good,” said Thomas Aquinas, “while envy grieves over it.” Unfortunately, grieving over our neighbor’s good has become a dominant part of recent economic discussions (“income inequality,” the “Buffett rule,” the “99%”).
Over at National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg takes a look at a recent Charles Blow op-ed in the New York Times in which the writer hyperventilates about statements made by Rick Santorum on the subject of income inequality.
Economically speaking, income inequality reflects the workings of several factors, many of which are essential if we want a dynamic, growing economy. Even your average neo-Keynesian economist will acknowledge that, without incentives (such as the prospect of a higher income), many entrepreneurial projects that create wealth — not to mention jobs and often greater incomes for others — may lie dormant forever. Either that or the entrepreneur will simply leave for a more friendly economic environment in which his ideas, willingness to assume risk, and potential job-creation capacities are taken more seriously.
Part of Mr. Blow’s unhappiness with Santorum was that he made his inequality remarks in Detroit, despite Blow correctly noting that “income inequality in the Detroit area isn’t particularly high.”
But Detroit’s well-documented economic problems have little to do with income inequality per se. They have far more to do with decades of corporatist collusion between bailed-out car companies and the UAW, rampant political corruption, and assorted crony-capitalist arrangements — the same arrangements that recently helped, as a recent University of Illinois study illustrated, the Chicago metropolitan region merit (yes, merit) the unenviable title of “the most corrupt area in the country since 1976.”
An interesting report in The Economist on the rise of flashy and free spending entrepreneur “gazillionaires” in India and China and how they are perceived:
In much of India, life is getting perceptibly better each year. Wealth per person has vaulted by 150% in the past decade, from $2,000 to $5,000. Many Indians think the nation’s entrepreneurs deserve some of the credit. In Dharavi, a slum outside Mumbai, an illiterate mother called Aruna sits in her tiny one-room flat, which is home to ten people. Asked how she feels about the rich, she says: “They have worked hard. And we must work hard, too.” Her eldest daughter has a job entering data at a bank. The next one is studying diligently. The family may be near the bottom of the ladder, but it sees a way up.
But this in China:
The perception that commercial success often depends on political ties makes inequality in China more galling. In the mid-1980s Chinese incomes were more evenly distributed than India’s—hardly surprising, since China was nominally communist and India is afflicted by a caste system. But now China is less equal than India, with a Gini coefficient of 0.4 to India’s 0.37. China has 800,000 dollar millionaires, but also 400m people who live on less than $2 a day.
In the “Wealth Inequality Mirage” on RealClearMarkets, Diana Furchtgott-Roth looks at the campaign waged by “levelers” who exaggerate and distort statistics about income inequality to advance their political ends. The gap, she says, is the “main battle” in the Nov. 2 election. “Republicans want to keep current tax rates to encourage businesses to expand and hire workers,” she writes. “Democrats want to raise taxes for the top two brackets, and point to rising income inequality as justification.”
This is a constant refrain from the religious left, which views the income or wealth gap as evidence of injustice and grounds for reforming political and economic structures. In the video posted here, you’ll see Margaret Thatcher, in her last speech in the House of Commons on November 22, 1990, brilliantly defending her policies against the same charge.
Furchtgott-Roth zeroes in on a recent interview with Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor for President Bill Clinton and now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
[Reich said:] “Unless we understand the relationship between the extraordinary concentration of income and wealth we have in this country and the failure of the economy to rebound, we are going to be destined for many, many years of high unemployment, anemic job recoveries and then periods of booms and busts that may even dwarf what we just had.”
Mr. Reich is wrong. He and other levelers exaggerate economic inequality, eagerly, because they rely on pretax income, which omits the 97% of federal income taxes paid by the top half of income earners and the many “transfer payments,” such as food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid and Medicare. This exaggerated portrait of inequality undergirds the present effort by the Democrats to raise income tax rates for people with taxable incomes of $209,000 a year on joint returns and $171,000 a year on single returns.
A more meaningful measure of inequality comes from an examination of spending. On Wednesday the Labor Department presented 2009 data on consumer spending, based on income quintiles, or fifths. This analysis shows that economic inequality has not increased, contrary to what the levelers contend.
Much of the discussion around this issue from the left uses the data to portray America as a heartless land of haves and have-nots. Here’s a quote from a Sept. 28 AP story on new census data, including income figures:
“Income inequality is rising, and if we took into account tax data, it would be even more,” said Timothy Smeeding, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in poverty. “More than other countries, we have a very unequal income distribution where compensation goes to the top in a winner-takes-all economy.”
Here’s an amazing statistic: The average 2009-10 faculty salary at Wisconsin Madison was $111,100. But the median household income for all Americans in 2007 (a roughly parallel comparison) was just over $50,000. Isn’t something out of whack here? Isn’t this evidence of severe economic injustice demanding structural reform? Sounds to me like the Bucky Badger faculty has been helping itself to second and third helpings at the “winner-take-all” buffet.
The faculty at Prof. Reich’s school do even better on average income: $145,800. I suspect some celebrity professors might even be … above average.
… recent events have added nothing that we did not know before or, more accurately, should have known as social scientists or otherwise as people attentive to empirical evidence. The crucial fact here, of course, is the vast superiority of capitalism in improving the material standards of living of large numbers of people, and ipso facto the capacity of a society to deal with those human problems amenable to public policy, notably those of poverty. But, if this fact had been clear for a long time, recent events have brought it quite dramatically to the forefront of public attention in much of the world, and by no means only in Europe. It is now more clear than ever that the inclusion of a national economy in the international capitalist system (pace all varieties of “dependency theory”) favors rather than hinders development, that capitalism remains the best bet if one wishes to improve the lot of the poor, and that policies fostering economic growth are more likely to equalize income differentials than are policies that deliberately foster redistribution.
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… to opt for capitalism is not to opt for inequality at the price of growth; rather, it is to opt for an accelerating transformation of society. This undoubtedly produces tensions and exacts costs, but one must ask whether these are likely to be greater than the tensions and costs engendered by socialist stagnation. Moreover, the clearer view of the European socialist societies that has now become public radically debunks the notion that, whatever else may have ailed these societies, they were more egalitarian than those in the West: they were nothing of the sort. One must also remember that, comparatively speaking, these European societies were the most advanced in the socialist camp. The claims to greater equality are even hollower in the much poorer socialist societies in the Third World (China emphatically included).
Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm.
Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first — and then they will joyfully share their wealth.
Lest anyone think I post this to cast St. John Chrysostom as some sort of proto-free marketer, that is not the point. He was equally severe with those who had accumulated wealth. Their responsibilities to the poor and to the neighbor were non-negotiable. But those responsibilities were to be exercised freely, in accord with our nature, and without compulsion.
If you cannot remember everything, instead of everything, I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs. If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money; and by nourishing Christ in poverty here and laying up great profit hereafter, we will be able to attain the good things which are to come, by the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom (be glory, honor, and might,) to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen (On Wealth and Poverty).