Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mind The Gap

The so-called income gap between rich and poor is growing we are told. The rich are "sharing disproportionately" in the economic gains we are told. What does this mean? Should we do something about it? If so, what should we do?

Imagine, that adopting "Policy A" would double the income of the poorest sixty percent of the population, but, at the same time, quadruple the income of the richest forty percent of the population? Suppose that there was simply no other feasible way to double the income of the poorest sixty percent? Would you favor implementing "Policy A?" After all, "Policy A" increases inequality. The dreaded "income gap" widens under "Policy A."

One way to eliminate income inequality -- eliminate the income gap -- is to force the entire citizenry to live at the edge of starvation. This is, more or less, the experiment that the Soviet Union embarked upon in 1917. How did that turn out? The Soviet Union successfully eliminated the "income gap."

Suppose "taxing millionaires and billionaires" meant that unemployment for the rest of us would rise to double digits and stay there for the next thirty years. Is it still worth it, so that we can make "the rich pay their fair share," even if such a policy would guarantee that large numbers of people cannot find jobs?

Why does anyone care about the income gap? The issue is not how to divide a fixed pie after all. The issue is how to grow the pie. Suppose our only concern is with people whose income and wealth puts them in the bottom 50 percent of the pile. It might be necessary to enrich a few folks in order improve the lot of the bottom 50 percent. Who cares if the rich get richer?

Isn't it the right policy to try to improve the lot of the poorest 50 percent of our population regardless of how rich the rest of the folks get? It just might turn out that income inequality is a by-product of improving the lot of the poorest folks in society and that deliberate policies to reduce inequality damage the economic prospects of the poorest half of the population. So, why the interest in the income gap?

What we should be concerned about are policies that improve the economic prospects of the half of the population with the lowest income and least amount of wealth. If improving the prospects of the less fortunate increases income and wealth inequality, so be it.

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