I have grown increasingly concerned about 1) the widening inequality in wealth and income in the US and 2) our slowing economic mobility. These two trends may be connected.
Historically, the United States has enjoyed higher social mobility than Europe, and both left and right have identified this economic openness as an essential source of the nation’s economic vigor. But several recent studies have shown that in America today it is harder to escape the social class of your birth than it is in Europe. The Canadian economist Miles Corak has found that as income inequality increases, social mobility falls — a phenomenon Alan B. Krueger, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, has called the Great Gatsby Curve.Educational attainment, which created the American middle class, is no longer rising. The super-elite lavishes unlimited resources on its children, while public schools are starved of funding. This is the new Serrata. An elite education is increasingly available only to those already at the top. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama enrolled their daughters in an exclusive private school; I’ve done the same with mine. [More well worth reading]
For the most part, there is not much alarm at lower mobility and widening inequality among most Americans. I think that may be just a matter of time. But when we discuss how whether the government should intervene, the politics is pretty clear: the right of "job creators" is supreme while the fate of the 47% who "feel entitled" is subordinate. This view is poorly informed, both on the idea of "job creators" (more later) and the entitled. However, I think it is especially inaccurate concerning the idea of who feels entitled.
Part of the indifference to these two trends may be ascribed to our own sense of entitlement and why we deserve special consideration when others don't.
EVERYONE FEELS ENTITLED People tend to think that they have justice on their side, whether it comes to making or taking.For example, millions of homeowners have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the premise that the tax deduction for mortgages will be continued. If they support a continuation of that deduction they hardly feel like brigands, even though a bipartisan consensus of economists doubts the efficiency of this tax break.As years and decades pass, recipients of this deduction and other benefits start to see them as deeply and richly deserved. Furthermore, almost all of us reap one or more of these benefits, so few individuals are consistently opposed to all government transfers.It becomes difficult for a politician to articulate exactly what is wrong with this arrangement when the audience itself is in on the game and perhaps does not want to hear about its own takings.A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE The Founding Fathers were extremely worried about the threat to society posed by corruption and privilege-seeking.Drawing on examples going back to antiquity, they understood how unmitigated wealth-taking could create a negative and cumulatively self-reinforcing political dynamic. They also understood that the Constitution — or any constitution — would be an extremely imperfect remedy for this problem.[More from Tyler Cowen]
But my overall point is one problem that obesity complicates is how we view low income citizens. Since the obesity rate is higher for poor people, the image that springs to mind when entitlement is mentioned is not a homeowner, but an obese minority woman.
Empathy for a rail-thin child or even adult is easy to inspire. We react, I think, instinctively to evidence of hunger. We are not drawn to sympathize with overweight individuals - how can someone so fat be needy?
So when the word "entitlement" is uttered, we see the wrong image, perhaps. What this implies is not clear (to me), but I think if we do get serious about reining in entitlements, there may be some surprises, because the largest group of "takers" may not be who we think.