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 Regulatory Affairs
 
The Inequality That Matters
The American Interest Online, United States Saturday, January 01, 2011

Tyler Cowen
The growing income inequality is not a sign of the downfall of the American Republic. Most average Americans don't care about income inequality. The things a middle class American shared with Bill Gates is much more important than what he doesn't. It is the intellectual class which wages the battle against income inequality. There are cases in which income inequality matters. We do not have remedies for the hazards created by the financial sector where income inequality really matters, writes Tyler Cowen in The American Interest Online.

Does growing wealth and income inequality in the United States presage the downfall of the American republic? Will we evolve into a new Gilded Age plutocracy, irrevocably split between the competing interests of rich and poor? Or is growing inequality a mere bump in the road, a statistical blip along the path to greater wealth for virtually every American? Or is income inequality partially desirable, reflecting the greater productivity of society’s stars?

There is plenty of speculation on these possibilities, but a lot of it has been aimed at elevating one political agenda over another rather than elevating our understanding. As a result, there’s more confusion about this issue than just about any other in contemporary American political discourse. The reality is that most of the worries about income inequality are bogus, but some are probably better grounded and even more serious than even many of their heralds realize.

...

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.

...

This is why, for example, large numbers of Americans oppose the idea of an estate tax even though the current form of the tax, slated to return in 2011, is very unlikely to affect them or their estates. In narrowly self-interested terms, that view may be irrational, but most Americans are unwilling to frame national issues in terms of rich versus poor. There’s a great deal of hostility toward various government bailouts, but the idea of “undeserving” recipients is the key factor in those feelings.

...

What Matters, What Doesn’t

All that said, income inequality does matter—for both politics and the economy. To see how, we must distinguish between inequality itself and what causes it. But first let’s review the trends in more detail.

The numbers are clear: Income inequality has been rising in the United States, especially at the very top. The data show a big difference between two quite separate issues, namely income growth at the very top of the distribution and greater inequality throughout the distribution. The first trend is much more pronounced than the second, although the two are often confused.

... ... ... ...

Lonely at the Top?

Why is the top 1 percent doing so well?

...

Many of the other high earners are also connected to finance. After Wall Street, Kaplan and Rauh identify the legal sector as a contributor to the growing spread in earnings at the top. Yet many high-earning lawyers are doing financial deals, so a lot of the income generated through legal activity is rooted in finance. Other lawyers are defending corporations against lawsuits, filing lawsuits or helping corporations deal with complex regulations. The returns to these activities are an artifact of the growing complexity of the law and government growth rather than a tale of markets per se. Finance aside, there isn’t much of a story of market failure here, even if we don’t find the results aesthetically appealing.

...

If we are looking for objectionable problems in the top 1 percent of income earners, much of it boils down to finance and activities related to financial markets. And to be sure, the high incomes in finance should give us all pause.

...

... ... ... ... ... ...

That’s an underappreciated way to think about our modern, wealthy economy: Smart people have greater reach than ever before, and nothing really can go so wrong for them. As a broad-based portrait of the new world, that sounds pretty good, and usually it is. Just keep in mind that every now and then those smart people will be making—collectively—some pretty big mistakes.

How about a world with no bailouts? Why don’t we simply eliminate the safety net for clueless or unlucky risk-takers so that losses equal gains overall? That’s a good idea in principle, but it is hard to put into practice. Once a financial crisis arrives, politicians will seek to limit the damage, and that means they will bail out major financial institutions. Had we not passed TARP and related policies, the United States probably would have faced unemployment rates of 25 percent of higher, as in the Great Depression. The political consequences would not have been pretty. Bank bailouts may sound quite interventionist, and indeed they are, but in relative terms they probably were the most libertarian policy we had on tap. It meant big one-time expenses, but, for the most part, it kept government out of the real economy (the General Motors bailout aside).

So what will happen next? One worry is that banks are currently undercapitalized and will seek out or create a new bubble within the next few years, again pursuing the upside risk without so much equity to lose. A second perspective is that banks are sufficiently chastened for the time being but that economic turmoil in Europe and China has not yet played itself out, so perhaps we still have seen only the early stages of what will prove to be an even bigger international financial crisis. Adherents of this view often analogize 2009–10 to 1929–32, when many people thought that negative economic shocks had stopped and recovery was underway. In 2006, banks were gambling on the housing market, and maybe today they are, as the result of earlier decisions, gambling on China and Europe staying in one economic piece.

A third view is perhaps most likely. We probably don’t have any solution to the hazards created by our financial sector, not because plutocrats are preventing our political system from adopting appropriate remedies, but because we don’t know what those remedies are. Yet neither is another crisis immediately upon us.

...

Is the overall picture a shame? Yes. Is it distorting resource distribution and productivity in the meantime? Yes. Will it again bring our economy to its knees? Probably. Maybe that’s simply the price of modern society. Income inequality will likely continue to rise and we will search in vain for the appropriate political remedies for our underlying problems. <

This article was published in the The American Interest Online on Saturday, January 01, 2011. Please read the original article here.
Author : Tyler Cowen is professor of economics at George Mason University
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