The Left's 'Inequality' Obsession
By ARTHUR C. BROOKS
July 19, 2007; Page A15
The U.S. is a rich nation getting richer. According to Census figures, the average inflation-adjusted income in the top quintile of American earners increased 22% between 1993 and 2003. Incomes in the middle quintile rose 17% on average, while the incomes in the bottom quintile increased 13%. Over the 30 years prior to 2003, top-quintile earners saw their real incomes increase by two-thirds, versus a quarter for those in the middle quintile and a fifth among the bottom earners.
Reason to celebrate? Not according to those worried that the rich are getting richer faster than the poor are getting richer. The National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey (GSS) indicates that in 1973, the average family in the top quintile earned about 10 times what the average bottom-quintile family earned. Today that difference has grown to almost 15 times greater. Thus Sen. Barack Obama complains that "the average CEO now earns more in one day than an average worker earns in an entire year." John Edwards has famously spoken of the "two Americas," while Sen. Hillary Clinton characterizes today's economy as "trickle-down economics without the trickle." She declares that a progressive era is at hand because of "rising inequality and rising pessimism in our work force."
The general view among liberals is that economic inequality is socially undesirable because it makes people miserable; they propose to solve the problem through redistributive policies such as higher income taxes. As a scholar working in the field of public policy, I have long witnessed egalitarian hand-wringing about the alleged connection between inequality and unhappiness. What first made me doubt this prevailing view was that when I questioned actual human beings about it, few expressed any shock and outrage at the enormous incomes of software moguls and CEOs. They tended rather to hope that their kids might become the next Bill Gates.
And in fact, the evidence reveals that it is not economic inequality that frustrates Americans. Rather, it is a perceived lack of opportunity. To focus our policies on inequality, instead of opportunity, is to make a serious error -- one that will worsen the very problem we seek to solve and make us generally unhappier.
The egalitarian argument against inequality starts with the claim that income is all relative: Above a basic subsistence level, they say, we care more about our financial position relative to others than about our absolute income. Experimental studies are often cited that appear to bear this idea out.
In one such study, two-thirds of subjects said that they would be happier at a company where they earned $33,000 while their colleagues earned $30,000 than at one where they earned $35,000 while their colleagues earned $38,000. In another experiment, 56% of participants chose a hypothetical job paying $50,000 per year while everyone else earned $25,000, rather than a job paying $100,000 per year while others made $200,000. Thus, the thinking goes, the very fact that some people have less than others leads to unhappiness, even without deprivation.
Moreover, the redistribution of income taxed at higher and higher levels, according to egalitarians, does not really hurt the rich, because they tend to use their "excess" incomes to purchase what they do not "need," such as luxury cars and outlandishly large houses. Some go even further, arguing that we should tax the economically successful explicitly to discourage them from working, since their work will only make them richer and thus sadden the less successful. Says British economist Richard Layard, "If we make taxes commensurate to the damage that an individual does to others when he earns more" -- the damage to others' happiness, that is -- "then he will only work harder if there is a true net benefit to society as a whole. It is efficient to discourage work effort that makes society worse off."
But the egalitarians misinterpret the experimental evidence. The studies cited above don't necessarily tell us that people would be happier in a world of total equality. Rather, they indicate that if there is no apparent prospect for getting ahead themselves (as there indeed was not in the experiment), people will focus instead on having more than others -- even to the point of neglecting their financial interests.
There is a fundamental reason to doubt the link between economic inequality and unhappiness. If the egalitarians are right, then average happiness levels should be falling. They aren't.
The GSS shows that in 1972, 30% of the population said that they were "very happy" with their lives; in 1982, 31%; in 1993, 32%; and in 2004, 31%. In other words, no significant change in reported happiness occurred -- even as income inequality has increased significantly.
The data do tell us that economic mobility -- not equality -- is associated with happiness. The GSS asked respondents, "The way things are in America, people like me and my family have a good chance of improving our standard of living -- do you agree or disagree?" The two-thirds of the population who agreed were 44% more likely than the others to say they were "very happy," 40% less likely to say that they felt "no good at all" at times, and 20% less likely to say that they felt like failures. In other words, those who don't believe in economic mobility -- for themselves or for others -- are not as happy as those who do.
Perhaps in a world where there is no opportunity for advancement, an important concern is how one's income measures up to others. In the real world where people believe there is opportunity, however, one's own income potential matters a great deal more than what others are earning. Some studies even find that the happiness of workers rises as the incomes of others climb relative to their own, because they see the incomes of others as evidence of what they themselves can achieve.
Believing in mobility, then, helps make people happy. Is this belief a delusion? Does economic mobility actually exist in America today? It does.
The U.S. Census Bureau, the Urban Institute and the Federal Reserve have all pointed out that, as a general rule, about a fifth of the people in the lowest income quintile will climb to a higher quintile within a year, and that about half will rise within a decade. True, a significant proportion of people will fall over the same period. But the studies nevertheless put paid to the claim that economic mobility is in any way unusual. Millions and millions of poor Americans climb out of the ranks of poverty every year.
Those who don't rise will probably not become happier if we redistribute more income. Indeed, the effect may be just the opposite. Redistributionist policies tend to reduce incentives to create wealth, which means less economic growth and fewer jobs, and less charitable giving -- all to the detriment of those lower on the income scale. But more important, redistribution can, as the American welfare system has shown, turn beneficiaries into demoralized long-term dependents.
An accurate and constructive vision of America sees a land of both inequality and opportunity, in which hard work and perseverance are the keys to jumping from the ranks of the have-nots to those of the haves. This vision promotes policies focused not on wiping out economic inequality, but rather on enhancing economic mobility. These policies include improving educational opportunities, addressing cultural impediments to success, enhancing the fluidity of labor markets, searching for ways to include all citizens in America's investing revolution, and protecting the climate for entrepreneurship.
To focus our policies on opportunity, instead of equality, will address Americans' real concern, and make us happier to boot.
Mr. Brooks is a professor of public administration at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Public Administration and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is adapted from a forthcoming article in City Journal.
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