Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Why nobody cares...

About inequality. A superb debate-by-short-essay about inequality and its relatively low importance for  most Americans. I think the arguments are capably advanced by all sides, making all the pieces worth the minute or two it takes to read them.

For example, recent research indicates some reasons why we don't care much right now.
First, the expansion of consumer credit in the United States has allowed middle class and poor Americans to live beyond their means, masking their lack of wealth by increasing their debt. We might think that people who have "zero net worth” have nothing. But in fact, having zero net worth increasingly means owning a lot (cars, televisions, even houses) – but also owing a lot. As a result people with zero net worth, and even negative net worth, can still feel that they are living the American dream, doing “better” than their parents did while keeping up with the Joneses.
Second, poorer Americans’ belief in social mobility – despite strong evidence of its rarity – causes negative reactions to policies that would seem to benefit them, like raising taxes on those who earn and own a lot more. Why would the poor oppose taxes on the wealthy? Because many believe that they, or at least their children, will eventually be wealthy, voting for taxes on the rich may feel like voting for taxes on themselves. As a result, even the word “redistribution” has negative connotations. [More]
On the other hand, maybe we just think it's not a problem worth caring about (at least most of us).
Second, a lot of envy is local. People worry about how they are doing compared to their neighbors, their friends, their relatives, their co-workers, and the people they went to high school with. They don’t compare themselves to Michael Bloomberg, unless of course they are also billionaires. When the guy down the hall gets a bigger raise, perhaps by courting the boss, that’s what really bothers us. In other words, envy and resentment are not going away and they also do not stem fundamentally from the contrast between ordinary lives and the lives of the very wealthy.
Third, many Americans draw an important distinction between earned wealth and unearned wealth. If someone has become a billionaire, but he worked hard for it and supplied a good or service of real value (say Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook), for the most part Americans will respect and admire that person.
A lot of wealth today hasn’t been earned fairly, but still a lot of it has been the result of hard work and creativity, even if mixed in with good luck. The United States is still a society of business and a lot of businessmen provide great value to our economy. The weight has not swung to the point where there is more unearned wealth than earned wealth and so Americans identify with business and a business ethic, especially compared to attitudes in Europe. [More]
Regardless of your own persuasion, you will find both reinforcement and challenges in the articles.

FWIW, I have come to realize I think wealth and income inequality is a bigger deal than the vast majority of people, and these insights provided me with clues to my own prejudices as well as how this issue may develop in the next few years.

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