Inequality 6.

Does economic inequality matter? Citing Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Neil Irwin argues that there is a “deepening consensus…that rising inequality of income and wealth is an important trend over the last two or three decades.”[1] Eduardo Porter regards these social ills as “an existential threat to the nation’s future.”[2] NB: Is he correct? However, a “trend” isn’t either a problem or a solution. It is just an observed movement. People assign meaning to trends. The meaning assigned reflects the ambitions, fears, and beliefs of the people doing the assignment.

What has caused the stagnation in most incomes? Since 1973 productivity growth in the American economy has slowed dramatically.[3] That is the principal cause of the stagnation in most incomes. According to the most-recent Economic Report of the President, the failure to maintain the productivity-growth of the pre-1973 period means that the average American family now earns $30,000 a year less than it would have earned. In contrast, the increase in income inequality over the same period accounts for $9,000 a year for the same family.[4]

Regardless of the causes of rising inequality, liberals see a correlation between rising inequality and social problems. The teen-age birth-rate in the United States is about seven times as high as in France. More than one in four children lives with a single parent. More than twenty percent of Americans live in poverty. Seven out of every thousand adults is in prison.[5] A child born to a white, college-educated, married woman has the same chance of survival as does a child born to a similarly-circumstanced woman in Europe. However, children born to non-white, poor, single women have a much greater chance of dying young. Mental illness is more common among poor people than among wealthy people. Between 2009 and 2013, 9 percent of people with incomes below the poverty level reported “serious psychological distress,” while only 1.2 percent of people earning more than $80,000 so reported.[6] NB: Hard to get ahead if you’re mentally ill. On the other hand, 91 percent of people below the poverty level did not report “serious psychological distress.” Why not? Shouldn’t you be all wrought-up over your miserable situation? “People in low-income households don’t live as long [as people in high income households].”[7] By one measure, where there is a great disparity in income, upper income people live almost two days longer for every one-point increase in income disparity. In places with high inequality, you can live eleven days less than in places with low economic inequality. “But what causes the drop in life expectancy is debatable.”

Why this social disaster in the midst of so much other success? The conservative argument offered by Charles Murray and others is that the welfare state itself undermined the character of its beneficiaries. The liberal argument offered by Eduardo Porter is that Americans have been guided by a shared disdain for collective solutions and the privileging of individual responsibility. Therefore, America had relied on continuing prosperity instead of a welfare state. When long-term economic troubles hit, many Americans plunged through the cob-web of a “safety net.”

[1] Neil Irwin, “Things Bernanke Should Blog About,” NYT, 31 March 2015.

[2] Eduardo Porter, “Income Inequality Is Costing The Nation on Social Issues,” NYT, 29 April 2015.

[3] Tyler Cowen, “It’s Not the Inequality; It’s the Immobility,” NYT, 5 April 2015.

[4] This suggests that the policy prescriptions of Bernie Sanders target the smaller source of Americans’ discontent.

[5] That is three times the rate of 1975.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 12 June 2015, p. 16.

[7] Margot Sanger-Katz, “How Income Inequality Can Be Bad for Your Health,” NYT, 31 March 2015.


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