How much inequality is too much?


This chart from Vox shows how each $100 in Americans’ income was divided among the five main income groups in 2014, and how their shares have changed since 1989

It’s a bad thing when the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

But suppose the rich got richer, but the poor didn’t get poorer. What would be wrong with that?

Is the problem with economic inequality in and of itself?   Or would extreme differences between rich and poor be bad even if they poor did have enough—whatever your definition of “enough” happens to be.

New Dealers in the 1930s thought that increased incomes for the poor would be good for everybody, including the rich.  If poor people had more money to spend, that would increase demand for goods and services, and get the economic going.

The “supply-siders” in the 1980s thought that increased incomes for the rich would be good for everybody because that would make more capital available for investment.  That turned out not to be true, for reasons I came to understand later, but suppose it had.  Would that be bad?

I think it would be.  I didn’t always think so, but I think so now.

Differences in wealth are differences in power.  Extreme differences in wealth are extreme differences in power.   That includes power in politics, power as investors, power as consumers and power as philanthropists.

Differences in wealth are differences in opportunity.  Extreme inequality in wealth means extreme inequality in opportunity.   This is unfair even if existence is tolerable at the bottom of the income scale.

Differences in wealth create barriers between people.  Extreme differences in wealth create differences in culture so that people are unable to understand each other.

And, in fact, my hypothetical question does not apply to real life.  The concentration of American wealth in the hands of a small group does, in fact, come at the expense of the rest of us.   The economic elite are in fact monopolizing the benefits of economic growth, and the rest of us are getting poorer.








This cartoon explains how the rich got rich and the poor got poor by Alvin Chang for Vox.

Runaway Inequality Is Ripping Us Apart, an interview of Les Leopold for Truthout.

Income Inequality Hurts Economic Growth by Erik Sherman for Forbes.

You Can’t Feed a Family With GDP by Neil Irwin for The Burning Platform.

How Inequality Corrupts Success, an inteview with Elizabeth Anderson for Too Much [Added 1/9/2017]

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