University of Chicago economist John Cochrane has written one of the most unique and insightful perspectives on inequality in his blog, The Grumpy Economist. Read Why and how we care about inequality in its entirety. It is about 6 pages long.
Note I don’t say “redistribution” though some academics dream about it. We all know there isn’t enough money, especially to address real global poverty, and the sad fact is that government checks don’t cure poverty. President Obama was refreshingly clear, calling for confiscatory taxation even if it raised no income. “Off with their heads” solves inequality, in a French-Revolution sort of way, and not by using the hair to make wigs for the poor. The agenda includes a big expansion of spending on government programs, minimum wages, “living wages,” government control of wages, especially by minutely divided groups, CEO pay regulation, unions, “regulation” of banks, central direction of all finance, and so on. The logic is inescapable. To “solve inequality,” don’t just take money from the rich. Stop people, and especially the “wrong” people, from getting rich in the first place.
In this context, I think it is a mistake to accept the premise that inequality, per se, is a “problem” needing to be “solved,” and to craft “alternative solutions.”
Just why is inequality, per se, a problem?
Suppose a sack of money blows in the room. Some of you get $100, some get $10. Are we collectively better off? If you think “inequality” is a problem, no. We should decline the gift. We should, in fact, take something from people who got nothing, to keep the lucky ones from their $100. This is a hard case to make.
One sensible response is to acknowledge that inequality, by itself, is not a problem. Inequality is a symptom of other problems. I think this is exactly the constructive tone that this conference has taken.
But there are lots of different kinds of inequality, and an enormous variety of different mechanisms at work. Lumping them all together, and attacking the symptom, “inequality,” without attacking the problems is a mistake. It’s like saying “fever is a problem. So medicine shall consist of reducing fevers.”