Notes From Babel

Posts Tagged ‘income inequality

What Really Bothers Us: Poverty or Inequality?

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I like this hypothetical by Jason Brennan over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, positing two competing societies, one which equalizes wealth, and the other which does not but expands economically at a much faster rate such that, within a number of years, it yields to its poor a greater absolute measure of wealth than the poor enjoy in the more equalized society.

This sets up many interesting questions.  Is a society better that views wealth inequality as intrinsically evil?  Is there any intrinsic value in property rights and owning one’s own labor?  Does it matter whether wealth inequality actually leads to greater absolute wealth, even for its poor, than if wealth were equalized?  If so, does it matter how long we’d have to wait for that greater absolute wealth to materialize?  Must it occur within a single generation?  Are there intergenerational equity arguments at stake, such that the poor are morally obligated to choose to endure wealth inequality if it meant their children would enjoy greater absolute wealth?

Not surprisingly, many of the comments on the post fight vigorously against the hypothetical, insisting it attempts to make empirical claims about the real world when it explicitly doesn’t.  But I found this comment by Andrew Levine particularly troubling:

The starting baseline still matters a lot to the answer. Developing countries rely on growth more than developed countries do. Once it’s feasible for every (or nearly every) citizen to get food, clean water, education, travel, and some other things that are taken for granted in developed countries, and which are essential to being free to pursue one’s destiny from youth to death, relative wealth becomes more important than further growth if that growth contributes to widening inequalities.

I drew precisely the opposite conclusion as Mr. Levine:  Once everyone has access to food, clean water, education, travel (!), etc., how can it be said that “relative wealth becomes more important”?  Certainly, it becomes less important, no?  Once the poor are doing ok, can’t we then, finally, start letting people keep what they earn?  If even at this point we can’t honor basic notions of procedural justice, we must be living in a society that either values substantive property rights at effectively zero, or is so incredibly petty that even though its members enjoy all the basic goods and amenities “that are taken for granted in developed countries,” they still refuse to tolerate even the existence of accumulations of earned wealth.

I do not maintain that grim a view of my fellow man, and I believe most Americans are not so petulant or discontented as to buy into such an extreme version of redistributionist justice.


The Labor Movement, Redistributive Justice, and Procedural Fairness

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The left’s alignment with unions is more than merely political—it is ideological.  The major justification for continued existence of unions, particularly public sector unions, borrows heavily from a liberal conception of redistributive justice, as follows:

  • As a matter of first principles, all Americans are entitled to a minimum standard of living.
  • As a matter of observed fact, impersonal market forces sometimes do not result in compensation that comports with that preconceived standard of living.
  • Therefore, the market is an unsatisfactory mechanism for assigning economic values to labor.

I do not hide my antipathy for this line of reasoning, but I will not assail it here.  I want to instead press upon participants in the debate over organized labor, and particularly over public sector unions, of the impossibility of meaningful progress in that debate without acknowledging the standoff between conservative and liberal first principles.  More specifically, I contend that the labor movement will fail to win many converts because it either cannot or will not approach the issues as most Americans do:  by focusing on procedural fairness, rather than substantive outcomes.  While many people might believe they should earn more money, for example, they eschew procedurally unfair mechanisms to achieve it.  The abuse of procedural mechanisms, however, is precisely the criticism lodged against public sector unions.

As I discussed at length in a previous post, public sector unions present, at a minimum, the following forms of procedural unfairness:

  • Striking in the public sector exerts political rather than economic pressure on the government (who continues to collect taxes regardless), and is thus designed to harm the members of the public, particularly the poor, who depend on government services that unions are contracted to provide.
  • The employer with whom public employee unions negotiate—the government—is not just another industry, and thus normal market constraints are often supplanted by political restraints and more flexible accounting practices that enable unfair and unrealistic concessions in favor of unions.
  • Using their substantial political clout, public employee unions are able to influence elections and thus exert control over the representatives with whom they negotiate, resulting in less-than-arms’-length negotiations.
  • Accordingly, public employee unions are able to negotiate deals that often violate state constitutional proscriptions against retroactive compensation and incurring liabilities without voter approval.
  • Public employee unions represent one of the most powerful special interest groups by, in part, having successfully lobbied for laws requiring union dues be automatically collected from their members.
  • Public employee unions lobby against laws, such as Right to Work, that prohibit coercive and anti-competitive practices.
  • Public employee unions, unlike the general public, are permitted to press their interests upon elected officials in closed-door negotiations.
  • All this substantial political influence wielded by public sector unions constitutes an improper delegation of the police power properly held in trust by elected officials for the protection of the health, safety, welfare, and morals of the public.

The dispute over public sector unions, then, is between mainstream Americans in the private sector who believe fairness is achieved with the guarantee of fair and adequate procedures, and union supporters who believe fairness can only be determined by looking to substantive outcomes.  For the first group, public sector unions are unfair because they are given and make resort to special procedures not available to other groups.  For the second group, these various procedural objections are unpersuasive so long as public employees receive adequate compensation according to conceptions of liberal redistributive justice.

The two groups hopelessly talk past each other, then, as they are each lobbying for disparate forms of justice.  As a matter of practical reality, the two conceptions of justice are mutually exclusive:  The guarantee of procedural fairness is precisely the guarantee of fixed procedures in order to achieve particularized outcomes based on individual merit.  The guarantee of substantive fairness is precisely the guarantee of particularized procedures in order to achieve fixed outcomes based on conceptions of a “human right” to membership in the Middle Class.

It should be obvious, then, that for advocates of procedural fairness, whether public employees are overcompensated is merely a derivative claim—the principal claim is procedural unfairness.  The disparity in substantive outcomes that results between public and private employees—despite their being otherwise similarly situated—is evidence of the fundamental procedural problem.  (Incidentally, the same basic argument runs with respect to wealthy financiers.  Mainstream Americans are not overly bothered by the notion that someone, somewhere, might be very rich.  They are bothered instead by the idea that they might have become rich because of unfair tax policies, unfair regulatory schemes, or outright fraud—all of which are examples of procedural unfairness.)

This is why liberals will not answer the questions about the basic unfairness of public sector unions—they have no interest in fixing the unions.  It’s the unions who’ve got the right idea, according to liberals:  fix the value of labor in the first event to meet a basic standard of living, and then work backwards to somehow make all the math work. Instead, liberals are interested in making the rest of the workplace look more like the public sector.

The strategy seems like it would be a slam-dunk:  who wouldn’t favor an approach that would increase their compensation?  Thus, the fact that as many Americans disfavor as favor public employee unions strikes liberals as evidence of a stupid or brainwashed population captured by powerful corporate interests.  I submit instead that liberals have to this point ignored Americans’ strong predisposition toward procedural fairness, and that, provided procedural fairness is reasonably assured, Americans are willing to accept disparate outcomes—the bugbear of liberal ideology.  This is the bitter pill that liberals are reluctant to swallow, and it is why they have not made meaningful progress in advancing the dialog on public sector unions or addressing their many systemic abuses.

Cross-Posted at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised…

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…but I was quite disappointed that E.D. Kain chose to engage only the noisy and debatable points about public sector unions rather than the serious and systemic ones.  I have been writing about these problems at great length here, and have shared them with E.D. in another forum.  E.D. is generally a very forthcoming writer and thinker, but when it comes to an issue so deeply enmeshed in the liberal agenda, he can’t bring himself to consider the serious arguments against public unions—even though his recent post purports to do just that.

I appreciate the left’s political angle in the union debate.  As the argument goes, unions work as a countervailing power to corporate economic and political clout, and are thus the only practical hope for securing some semblance of a middle class.  I don’t necessarily accept the premise, but there’s lots of interesting topics to unpack and discuss there.  At any rate, I do agree we’re facing a Middle Class Problem generally.  (But then again, when are we not?)

But this is no excuse for question begging.  Let’s put it another way.  Consider the following argument:  “Crony Capitalism is justified because it is a countervailing political and economic force to that of the Thuggish Labor Unions.”  Is not your first reaction to resist the despicable premise of Crony Capitalism as vile and anti-democratic, whether or not it is somehow “balanced out” by another vile and anti-democratic special interest?  And is not your second reaction to wonder whether we can simply mitigate the influence of both of these vile and anti-democratic special interests? 

This is my problem with the left, particularly those who profess open-mindedness, “no labels,” and aversion to politics as usual.  Though a conservative, I have expressed concern over the forms individualism and corporatism have taken in contemporary America.  There are reasons for this, partly due to government’s dual tendencies toward secularism and expansion, and partly due simply to human nature.  But there are some of us on the right who really are concerned with such problems, and would even concede there’s something to the necessity of unions as a countervailing force against corporate influence.  But to meaningfully advance labor’s concerns requires an acknowledgment of some of labor’s serious systemic problems, particularly those in the public sector. 

So I am disappointed that E.D. has chosen to eschew talking about those problems in favor of taking sides in favor of a special interest group in favor of a political agenda.   This is why he has chosen to willfully ignore the deeper problems with public unions as they relate to the integrity of our system of government itself.  Now that E.D. has apparently put himself in the service of political causes rather than political thought, serious debate on these tough questions simply gets in the way of the accumulation and wielding of power for the benefit of the special interest group du jour.  To that end, one must waste no time with stubborn conservatives and libertarians—not while the middle class is suffering so.

Again, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’m still disappointed when even the most thoughtful among those on the left pretend these kinds of deeper problems don’t exist.

Written by Tim Kowal

February 27, 2011 at 12:23 pm

The Wealthy Elites, New and Old

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After finishing Michael McGerr’s A Fierce Discontent, about the Progressive movement in the late 19th and early 20th century, I found striking the sheer number of parallels between Chrystia Freeland’s “new global elite” and Teddy Roosevelt’s “economic royalists” of the turn of the century.  Thus, I found immediately suspicious one of Freeland’s initial claims, that “the rich of today are also different from the rich of yesterday.”   Differences, in degree, yes, but not in kind.  The individualist spirit of today’s mega-rich is of the same genus as that of the Carnegies and Rockefellers.  Indeed, as Freeland goes on in describing today’s elite:

Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly.

In fact, this is precisely the attitude of the early 20th century elites that drew the ire of the Progressive movement.  “[The] failures which a man makes in his life are due almost always to some defect in his personality, some weakness of body, or mind, or character, will, or temperament,” John D. Rockefeller wrote.  As an exasperated Teddy Roosevelt warned the wealthy:  “The operators forget that they have duties toward the public, as well as rights to be guarded by the public through its governmental agents.”  “It is amazing folly on their part….” “Do they not realize that they are putting a very heavy burden on us who stand against socialism; against anarchic disorder?”

Yet, like Tyler Cowen’s in his recent piece on income inequality (summary here), Freeland acknowledges that affluence measured in dollars fails to tell the whole story:  economic disparity in America has flattened in many of the ways that truly matter.  As Cowen points out, “I have access to penicillin, air travel, good cheap food, the Internet and virtually all of the technical innovations that [Bill] Gates does. . . . [B]y broad historical standards, what I share with Bill Gates is far more significant than what I don’t share with him.”  Thus, greater disparity in dollar figures tends to matter less than it did a hundred years ago, when long hours, unsafe workplaces, and unhealthful living conditions served to agitate the lower classes against the wealthy elite.

Another principal difference of today’s elite, Freeman notes, is its expansion beyond national borders in taking advantage of global rather than merely local or national markets.  Freeland attributes the “rise of the new plutocracy” to “the revolution in information technology and the liberalization of global trade.”  Thus, Freeman says, “today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves.”

But Freelands’s new global elite is not different in kind from the early 20th century American elites.  As McGerr observes, following capitalists’ wildly successful exploits in the American frontier, the closing of the west due to progressive regulation gave Americans “a sense of economic limits, new in the nation’s history. For the first time, there was a widespread understanding that forests, land, and other resources were not infinite.”  “For all the talk of individualism . . . Americans realized that there was no being let alone anymore, even out on the frontier.”  Predictably, then, today’s elite have transcended the limitations of local and national markets to explore the frontier-like global economy.

Freeland correctly draws parallels between the emphasis on philanthropy of today’s and yesterday’s elites.  “[A]rguably the most coveted status symbol isn’t a yacht, a racehorse, or a knighthood; it’s a philanthropic foundation.”  This, however, seems a far cry from how Carnegie or Rockefeller framed the philanthropy question.  Carnegie remarked that it was the duty of the wealthy “to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds … for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience, and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.”  Rockefeller likewise noted:  “I can see but one way in which they can secure a real equivalent for money spent, and that is to cultivate a taste for giving where the money may produce an effect which will be a lasting gratification.”  One does not glean from Freeland’s piece that the hyper-philanthropy of today’s elite is born of similar perspective.  Indeed, she cites the following as a representative sentiment:

A Wall Street investor who is a passionate Democrat recounted to me his bitter exchange with a Democratic leader in Congress who is involved in the tax-reform effort. “Screw you,” he told the lawmaker. “Even if you change the legislation, the government won’t get a single penny more from me in taxes. I’ll put my money into my foundation and spend it on good causes. My money isn’t going to be wasted in your deficit sinkhole.”

Just as America needed its oft-loathed upper 10% a hundred years ago, it needs its modern elite.  “In today’s hypercompetitive global environment, we need a creative, dynamic super-elite more than ever.”  Yet, while the fierce individualism of “economic royalists” survived the Progressive attempt to destroy it a hundred years ago, it was forever hobbled, and to this day remains conditioned on guaranteed admission to a generous, upwardly mobile middle class.  As FDR acknowledged, bold attempts to breed the individualist spirit out of Americans was a hopeless cause.  Americans simply wanted controls to guarantee that the greater affluence of the elite class translated into greater affluence of the middle class and, once that were accomplished, that Americans be left free to indulge in the gratification of consumerism.  As Freeland aptly puts it, “The lesson of history is that, in the long run, super-elites have two ways to survive: by suppressing dissent or by sharing their wealth.”  As McGerr puts it, “The task of government was to make sure Americans could afford pleasure, and then get out of the way.”

Tyler Cowen on Income Inequality

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A couple months ago, I blogged about the so-called “problem” of income inequality, arguing that the problem simply does not exist as it did historically.  No matter what our income level, there is an exceedingly small portion of Americans who cannot obtain access to good cheap food, clean accommodations, affordable travel, basic medical care, and even access to the internet.

Well, Tyler Cowen’s recent piece in The American Interest spells all this out in much greater detail here.  It’s really a great piece that I encourage you to read.  Here are the passages that resonated most with me:

In terms of immediate political stability, there is less to the income inequality issue than meets the eye. Most analyses of income inequality neglect two major points. First, the inequality of personal well-being is sharply down over the past hundred years and perhaps over the past twenty years as well. Bill Gates is much, much richer than I am, yet it is not obvious that he is much happier if, indeed, he is happier at all. I have access to penicillin, air travel, good cheap food, the Internet and virtually all of the technical innovations that Gates does. Like the vast majority of Americans, I have access to some important new pharmaceuticals, such as statins to protect against heart disease. To be sure, Gates receives the very best care from the world’s top doctors, but our health outcomes are in the same ballpark. I don’t have a private jet or take luxury vacations, and—I think it is fair to say—my house is much smaller than his. I can’t meet with the world’s elite on demand. Still, by broad historical standards, what I share with Bill Gates is far more significant than what I don’t share with him.

Compare these circumstances to those of 1911, a century ago. Even in the wealthier countries, the average person had little formal education, worked six days a week or more, often at hard physical labor, never took vacations, and could not access most of the world’s culture. The living standards of Carnegie and Rockefeller towered above those of typical Americans, not just in terms of money but also in terms of comfort. Most people today may not articulate this truth to themselves in so many words, but they sense it keenly enough. So when average people read about or see income inequality, they don’t feel the moral outrage that radiates from the more passionate egalitarian quarters of society. Instead, they think their lives are pretty good and that they either earned through hard work or lucked into a healthy share of the American dream. (The persistently unemployed, of course, are a different matter, and I will return to them later.) It is pretty easy to convince a lot of Americans that unemployment and poverty are social problems because discrete examples of both are visible on the evening news, or maybe even in or at the periphery of one’s own life. It’s much harder to get those same people worked up about generalized measures of inequality.

. . . .

A neglected observation, too, is that envy is usually local. At least in the United States, most economic resentment is not directed toward billionaires or high-roller financiers—not even corrupt ones. It’s directed at the guy down the hall who got a bigger raise. It’s directed at the husband of your wife’s sister, because the brand of beer he stocks costs $3 a case more than yours, and so on. That’s another reason why a lot of people aren’t so bothered by income or wealth inequality at the macro level. Most of us don’t compare ourselves to billionaires. Gore Vidal put it honestly: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”

. . . .

And so we come again to the gains of the top earners, clearly the big story told by the data. It’s worth noting that over this same period of time, inequality of work hours increased too. The top earners worked a lot more and most other Americans worked somewhat less. That’s another reason why high earners don’t occasion more resentment: Many people understand how hard they have to work to get there. It also seems that most of the income gains of the top earners were related to performance pay—bonuses, in other words—and not wildly out-of-whack yearly salaries.5

It is also the case that any society with a lot of “threshold earners” is likely to experience growing income inequality. A threshold earner is someone who seeks to earn a certain amount of money and no more. If wages go up, that person will respond by seeking less work or by working less hard or less often. That person simply wants to “get by” in terms of absolute earning power in order to experience other gains in the form of leisure—whether spending time with friends and family, walking in the woods and so on. Luck aside, that person’s income will never rise much above the threshold.

It’s not obvious what causes the percentage of threshold earners to rise or fall, but it seems reasonable to suppose that the more single-occupancy households there are, the more threshold earners there will be, since a major incentive for earning money is to use it to take care of other people with whom one lives. For a variety of reasons, single-occupancy households in the United States are at an all-time high. There are also a growing number of late odyssey years graduate students who try to cover their own expenses but otherwise devote their time to study. If the percentage of threshold earners rises for whatever reasons, however, the aggregate gap between them and the more financially ambitious will widen. There is nothing morally or practically wrong with an increase in inequality from a source such as that.

The funny thing is this: For years, many cultural critics in and of the United States have been telling us that Americans should behave more like threshold earners. We should be less harried, more interested in nurturing friendships, and more interested in the non-commercial sphere of life. That may well be good advice. Many studies suggest that above a certain level more money brings only marginal increments of happiness. What isn’t so widely advertised is that those same critics have basically been telling us, without realizing it, that we should be acting in such a manner as to increase measured income inequality. Not only is high inequality an inevitable concomitant of human diversity, but growing income inequality may be, too, if lots of us take the kind of advice that will make us happier.

From there, Cowen goes on to give a very nice, dumbed-down explanation of how the finance imposes an opportunity cost on our economy by attracting the smartest and hardest working individuals, how the financiers pose a perpetual risk to our economy, and why we are probably just going to have to live with that as the price of participating in the affluent society.   It’s a longer article, but I highly recommend sitting down with it when you have the time.

[Victor Davis Hanson makes another observation related to the problem of “poverty” in California:

In two supermarkets 50 miles apart, I was the only one in line who did not pay with a social-service plastic card (gone are the days when “food stamps” were embarrassing bulky coupons). But I did not see any relationship between the use of the card and poverty as we once knew it: The electrical appurtenances owned by the user and the car into which the groceries were loaded were indistinguishable from those of the upper middle class.

By that I mean that most consumers drove late-model Camrys, Accords, or Tauruses, had iPhones, Bluetooths, or BlackBerries, and bought everything in the store with public-assistance credit. This seemed a world apart from the trailers I had just ridden by the day before. I don’t editorialize here on the logic or morality of any of this, but I note only that there are vast numbers of people who apparently are not working, are on public food assistance, and enjoy the technological veneer of the middle class. California has a consumer market surely, but often no apparent source of income. Does the $40 million a day supplement to unemployment benefits from Washington explain some of this?

The rest of his piece on California’s decline is also highly recommended reading, here.]

Written by Tim Kowal

December 15, 2010 at 10:39 pm

I’m not the only one concerned that we’re all worked up for nothing over income inequality

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I recently wrote about why, under a certain definition of the word, no one knows any truly “poor” Americans.  (Excepting perhaps homeless people, a different question altogether.)  If we’re not talking about real, brutal poverty, then we’re really just talking about something more like discomfort.  And even if we’re going to talk about ameliorating discomfort, are there any real solutions on the table that, after all the fanfare and the construction of a substantial new wing onto the federal bureaucracy, will have done much more than aimlessly shifted the discomfort around a bit?

Thus, all this raises the question, why does it seem so many people finger this so called “income inequality” as such a vexing problem?

I’m pleased to find that Tom Smith shares my bemusement.  Steve Bainbridge, too.  I’ll quote the part that so tickled me I nearly woke my wife:

And what is this business of asking people what they would say would be the optimal degree of economic inequality?  Oh, I don’t know, maybe twenty percent of the people have forty or fifty-three percent of the wealth?  And while we’re at it, why don’t we ask them what the optimal thrust to payload ratio is for a solid fuel booster placing an object in a geostationary orbit?  As if their opinion is worth something, that is.  People’s intuitions on both questions are utterly without value except as curiosities.  They only go to show how little most people know about each topic, an entirely rational ignorance on their part, as we don’t design rockets by popular survey any more than we should consult the masses on what the global distribution of wealth ought to be.  Who dreams these things up, anyway?

I think this response can be slightly modified to serve as a ready retort to virtually any top-down macroeconomic policy objective.  Economies reflect the values and abilities of the people who participate in them.  How have we come to get this exactly backwards, such that we would presume to engineer our society’s values and abilities through economic policy? If we thought this were possible, we must all be wondering why more folks don’t buy cat leashes.

Tom makes another point worth noting:

It is only the wealth immediately around me that annoys me.  And this means that as between unequal and even more unequal, I will be indifferent, if the people getting really, really rich are already so rich that I have no contact with them anyway.  If the guys with 100 foot yachts get to trade up to 200 foot yachts, I don’t care, because I had no contact with them to begin with.  So I think it is only local inequalities that trouble us.

I think this is right.  I listened to Michael Shermer on the radio a couple years ago talk about his book, The Mind of the Market (the book wasn’t as good as his interview), and about how people have a lot of strange and seemingly irrational attitudes about money.  For instance, they would go across town to save $50 on a $100 cell phone, but they wouldn’t for the same amount of savings on a $500 tv.  He mentioned that a study he or his people had done indicated people were happiest who tended to have a close knit group of friends who had similar values and, presumably, similar incomes.

I think there is a lot of wisdom in this fairly obvious truth.  If we’re constantly running a query against the database of the entire great wide world for folks who have more stuff than us, we’re going to get a lot of hits.  But for heaven’s sake, why would anyone do that?  Other than, of course, solitary misanthropic bloggers who need material to bloviate about and start blog wars over non-issues like income inequality.  There.  I answered my own question.

Written by Tim Kowal

November 10, 2010 at 12:20 am

Posted in Economics

Tagged with

The Fuss over Income Inequality

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I’m not a good blogger.  I imagine most good bloggers are those who have instant and penetrating insight into everything they read in the news that day, and can do nothing other than to release it into the world lest the pressure grow so great that aneurysms and spontaneous combustion become real risks.  Myself, I have no stomach for a lot of political topics, and the topics I do take an interest in typically arrive in a flash, without any particular “current event” to tether or relate it to.  Blogging is about interaction, finding and joining a conversation on the great big internet and, if you’re lucky, moving the debate ahead in some meaningful way.  It can be impolite to spring a long essay on the impact of Chief Justice John Marshall’s nationalism in 19th century America on a poor reader.

All this is to say, I’ve been wanting to say something about the left’s infatuation with income disparity, and this exchange between the folks at Balloon Juice, on the one hand, and Andrew Sullivan, on the other, seemed a good enough excuse.  What follows is stuff that has been rolling around in the old bean for a few weeks.

First, I acknowledge there is some sort of natural law that says that no man can be worth so many times more than the next.  This is not true in practical terms, of course, in a world of sophisticated and international markets.  But whatever OS God installed on our brains was wired well before the industrial revolution and multi-national corporations and world banks, etc.  So we’re left with the reality that no matter how well you make the case that Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and Steve Jobs earned their billions, there will always be something clanging about in defiance in the mind’s basement.

With that said, where is the self-control that should be reigning in that raw nerve that wants to buck against those who have more than us?  Why do we continue to grow more petty and jealous rather than less?  The problem of ostentation does not exist as it once did.  At one time, the lower class lived in literal filth, in such proximity to their own waste that the evidence of their caste was transmitted as much by odor as by appearance.  They were exposed to diseases by the vermin that lived among them.  The fires used to prepare meals and heat their homes posed a real risk of destroying entire neighborhoods.  Likewise, during these times, the wealthy took great pride in advertising their status, generally making a point of drawing attention to the difference between “us” and “them.”

Today, on the other hand, it is hard to tell the difference between the poor and the wealthy.  Typically, the poor enjoy indoor plumbing, microwaves, refrigerators, color televisions, and many other accoutrements of 21st century life.  The wealthy are difficult to distinguish from the middle class.  While the very wealthy will drive expensive cars, they drive them on the same highways as everyone else.  To the untrained eye, a suit looks like any other suit.  And besides, the wealthy and poor alike enjoy wearing board shorts and flip flops.  The gutter debutants and reality tv stars bizarrely have become a sort of symbol of the pop-cultural ties that bind us.

So, perhaps I’m misinformed.  But if so, then that’s a point in itself.  Without actively searching for it, I come across a lot of fuss made over the “income gap.”  But it never seems to be accompanied by any actual particulars about what it is those poor, impoverished indigents are presumed to be lacking.  It always seems to be merely in the abstract:  there is more inequality; the rich, by certain metrics, are getting richer; and the poor, certain metrics, are getting poorer.  And the greedy rich want to keep their money!  Don’t they realize we have a government to run? Don’t they realize the poor—the particulars of their impoverishment we’d rather not state, since either they don’t make for very sympathetic facts, or they’re not the sort that can be fixed with government services anyway—are being crushed under the feet of the rich who are waging war on them?  By God, let’s dust off the Thirteenth Amendment and get to work!

Perhaps the reason for the dearth of details is because the left knows there is no traction to be made by getting specific.  What big spending program would be a good rallying cry to galvanize the fight to empower the poor?  The Kansas City School Experiment, which spent tens of billions on inner city schools in a euphoric spree by liberal policy-makers, with no appreciable effects on kids’ education?   Are there any other sensible plans for what to do with the money?  Or just more pipe dreams?  Conservatives reasonably believe there aren’t any good plans demanding the rich cough up another substantial portion of their money, and thus the only plausible explanation for the weeping and gnashing of teeth over “income inequality” has more to do with a plot to soak the rich than anything else.

This is not to suggest, of course, that the debate over whether income inequality is a ripe issue for debate among macro-economists.  But that is not the nature of the current raw-nerve debate going on in the blogosphere currently.

Written by Tim Kowal

October 19, 2010 at 6:07 pm