I began yesterday’s column with a short clip of me explaining why we should focus on reducing poverty, not reducing inequality.
Here’s a more thorough discussion of the same topic.
The video makes three central points, all of which are very sound.
- The economy is not a fixed pie, the rest of us don’t become poor when someone else becomes rich.
- In a free society, there will be unequal outcomes because we have all make different choices in life.
- Fixating on the irrelevant issue of inequality distracts from addressing the real problem of poverty.
I want to focus on #3 because it’s very distressing that some folks on the left are more interested in hurting the rich rather than helping the poor.
Indeed, some of them are so motivated by spite that they even advocate for policies that will hurt poor people so long as rich people are hurt even more.
I normally try to avoid sounding judgemental, but that’s morally reprehensible.
The decent thing to do is figure out the policies that will help people climb the economic ladder.
With that in mind, here are some highlights from a recent FEE column by Gonzalo Schwarz. He begins with the common-sense observation that it’s best to focus on upward mobility.
…economic mobility, poverty, and income inequality…are not the same, and the policy responses to address them vary. …the income inequality narrative has come to dominate our current public policy discourse, especially in the United States. …The rich are getting richer, but the poor are getting richer too… Policies that aim to remove the barriers faced by people looking to climb the income ladder should be rigorously discussed and pursued.
He then points out that policies to reduce inequality often backfire.
Schwarz cites the minimum wage as an obvious example since it is a recipe for joblessness when politicians mandate pay levels that exceed the value of many low-skill workers.
But my interest in public finance leads me to share this excerpt.
Policy solutions aimed at reducing income inequality will not necessarily positively impact those looking to escape poverty… Quite often, these goals can come into conflict. …A…popular public policy “solution” to address income inequality is to raise the corporate income tax (CIT) and use the proceeds to fund government programs… A recent Harvard Business School working paper…find that a reduction in state corporate income taxes increases real investment, a key driver of economic growth. This is consistent with data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which published a wide-ranging 2008 paper that found that taxes on income tend to hamper economic growth significantly more than other tax instruments.
Schwarz’s conclusion is spot on.
Pursuing an agenda focused on boosting upward social mobility is more conducive to the discovery of the barriers in the way of human flourishing and wealth creation. Breaking down these barriers, both artificial and natural, is the best way to ensure that each and every person has the opportunity to achieve their American Dream. Certainly, we don’t need more income inequality to achieve broader prosperity but chasing the inequality red herring puts that goal at risk.
I’ll add my two cents to this discussion by noting that President John F. Kennedy was right to observe that a rising tide lifts all boats.
Data from the Census Bureau shows that all income groups tend to rise and fall together.
In other words, if you’re hurting the rich, you’re probably hurting the poor as well. And vice-versa.
And if you’re enacting policies that help the rich, then incomes for everyone else are probably rising as well.
P.S. Regular readers already know this, but I’ll make the should-be obvious point for any new readers that there are some types of government policy (bailouts, subsidies, protectionism, industrial policy, cronyism, etc) that produce unjust forms of inequality.
In other words, it’s good when people become rich by providing the rest of us with goods and services we value, but it’s not good for them to get rich by climbing into bed with politicians.
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