Why don’t people care more about economic inequality?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

One possibility is that a lot of talk about inequality gives the audience the impression that it is inevitable, and thereby renders potential remedies less urgent. Another speculation is that human beings are constantly evaluating the status of others. To the extent analysts reiterate that some group of citizens doesn’t have as much, maybe they’re actually reminding us that those citizens hold a lower social status. Perhaps subconsciously, we then respond by thinking those citizens deserve less, or by downgrading the urgency of their needs.

Another possibility is that talk about economic inequality increases political polarization, which lowers the chance of effective action. Or that criticizing American society may cause us to feel less virtuous, which in turn may cause us to act with less virtue. Perhaps if critics of inequality praised this nation more for what is has done to redress inequality, rather than criticizing it for the gaps, that might cement a self-image of Americans who are capable of tackling this problem, and thus spur interest in additional progress. That mechanism shouldn’t sound so strange to anyone who has tried to raise children.

When I bring up such points in dialogue, I’ve found that a lot of my fellow academicians retreat to the moral platitude that the “good guys” simply need to fight harder against the special interest groups. Maybe so, or maybe that response is just another way of digging in deeper to what so far has been a losing battle. The reality is that income inequality has gone up a great deal since the early 1980s, and we haven’t done so much to reverse the basic trend. The potentially egalitarian effects of  tax increases under the past two Democratic presidents and Obamacare have been outweighed by globalization, which benefits most those individuals who can access global markets, and by increases in the returns to highly skilled labor. The reality is that government expenditures have not become radically more poverty-reducing over the last few decades, although we do send more resources to the elderly.

Do read the whole thing, the various biting comments about other academics are in other parts of the piece.


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