Two of my favorite columnists are the Brooking Institution’s William Galston, a social economist who has a weekly column in the Wall Street Journal and the economics journalist Robert Samuelson who writes for the Washington Post.
Most people agree that income inequality in the U.S. is steadily getting worse. Mr. Galston make a good case (see my last post) that it is primarily caused by the large gap between the rising productivity of American workers and the stagnant level of their pay which has developed since 1973. He thinks that we need a fundamentally new social contract which links worker compensation to productivity. This, of course, is a tall order and it is not at all clear how such a new order would be achieved.
Mr. Samuelson has a different perspective: “Myth-making about Economic Inequality”. For example:
- The poor are not poor because the rich are rich
- Most of the poor will not benefit from an increase in the minimum wage because only 6% of the 46 million poor people have full time jobs
- All income groups have gained in the past three decades, even though the top 1% has gained the most (see the above chart from the CBO, December 2013)
- Widening economic inequality did not cause the Great Recession
These two perspectives on inequality are quite different but not contradictory. Basically what Mr. Samuelson is saying is that we have to be careful in how we address this problem or we’ll just make it worse. Raising taxes on the rich is unlikely to help and might hurt if it slows down the economy. Raising the minimum wage will only raise a fairly small number of people out of poverty and may cause a lot of unemployment along the way.
My solution: focus on boosting the economy to create more jobs in the short run (tax reform, immigration reform, trade expansion) and improved educational outcomes for the long run (early childhood education, increasing high school graduation rates, better career education).
But I agree with Mr. Galston that it is imperative to lessen income inequality, one way or another. Otherwise as a society we’ll have big trouble on our hands.