Why should we care about inequality? Tim Harford nails it in this Financial Times column

Tim Harford nails it in an article called “How the wealthy keep themselves on top.

I set out two reasons why we might care about inequality: an unfair process or a harmful outcome. But what really should concern us is that the two reasons are not actually distinct after all. The harmful outcome and the unfair process feed each other. The more unequal a society becomes, the greater the incentive for the rich to pull up the ladder behind them.

The noted Financial Times columnist, and author of The Undercover Economist, does a great service to readers by pulling a major theme from the series of articles on inequality and the top 1% published in the summer 2013 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

First, he states that while the “idea that the fat cats simply stole everyone else’s cream is emotionally powerful; it is not entirely convincing.” Then he goes on to note that:

In a well-functioning market, people only earn high incomes if they create enough economic value to justify those incomes. But even if we could be convinced that this was true, we do not have to let the matter drop.

This is partly because the sums involved are immense.

We should care about inequality because of the outcomes. But also because outcomes influence process.

At the very top of the scale, plutocrats can shape the conversation by buying up newspapers and television channels or funding political campaigns. The merely prosperous scramble desperately to get their children into the right neighbourhood, nursery, school, university and internship – we know how big the gap has grown between winners and also-rans.

This is what sticks in the throat about the rise in inequality: the knowledge that the more unequal our societies become, the more we all become prisoners of that inequality. The well-off feel that they must strain to prevent their children from slipping down the income ladder. The poor see the best schools, colleges, even art clubs and ballet classes, disappearing behind a wall of fees or unaffordable housing.

This is exactly what I hoped would be the main message of my article “Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility” in the Journal of Economic Perspectives symposium, and it is very satisfying to witness a talented journalist articulate these and related ideas with such clarity and precision!

Who’s Your Daddy? Some feedback from the top 1% on my New York Times article

Among the readers of an opinion piece I wrote in the New York Times on July 21st, Who’s Your Daddy? Job Opportunities for the children of the top 1 percent,  are two top 1 percenters who kindly took the time to email me their thoughts.

One of the goofiest most nonsensical things I have ever seen filled with
contradictions as you twist opposite conclusions to fit your thesis of
inequality. Just bizarre.

Sent from my iPad

My article was based on a soon to be published paper, Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility , so I would hope that it has some logic to it.

The following comments are from another top 1 percenter who offers a more nuanced view on my logic, such as it is. Continue reading “Who’s Your Daddy? Some feedback from the top 1% on my New York Times article”

Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility

The summer issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives will feature a collection of articles on inequality and the top 1%, some of which are now being circulated by the authors.

The paper by Tony Atkinson and his coauthors, “The top 1 percent in international and historical perspective,” is available in this post, and “The Pay of Corporate Executives and Financial Professionals as Evidence of Rents in Top 1 Percent Incomes,” by Josh Bivens and Lawerence Mishel, is available on the Economic Policy Institute website.

Greg Mankiw has also posted a copy of his paper, “Defending the One Percent“, on his blog.

My contribution to the collection is based on the notion that the inequality literature has paid little attention to the intergenerational consequences of increasing top income shares, and it can be read as a counterpoint to Mankiw’s piece, or at least to his claim that inequality of opportunity is not a reason to worry about the top 1%.

Here is the final draft: Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility. But if you just want a quick read, an excerpt from the conclusion follows. Either way, feedback is—as always—welcomed.

[NOTE added December 10, 2013: the published version of this paper is available from the American Economics Association website for the Summer 2013 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, as is the table of contents for the entire issue.]

Continue reading “Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility”

The Great Gatsby: as Hollywood never imagined it

After much anticipation Hollywood finally releases its version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby.

Was Gatsby a crook? Or was he a victim of a crooked game, the American Dream as a broken promise?

In this program originally aired on CBC radio last August, Sarah Churchwell of the University of East Anglia, a professor of American literature and author of Careless People, interprets Fitzgerald as saying the American Dream is a lie.

But listen also for my reading of a few passages to appreciate, tongue-in-cheek, why the underlying economics suggest that The Great Gatsby is indeed a novel for our times.

If you want the movie version, and a detailed discussion of The Great Gatsby Curve, here is a lecture I had the honour to give earlier this year at the University of Lethbridge on the invitation of the Prentice Institute and its Director Susan McDaniel.

I have to admit, however, the Hollywood version looks somewhat more exciting!

Public policies for equality and social mobility


“Inequality matters. It matters because it has the potential to shape opportunity.”

This is how I begin the conclusion to a just finished paper that will serve as a background document for an event called “Equality of Opportunity—a Canadian Dream?” that will take place Tuesday evening, February 26th.

The event is organized by Canada2020, an Ottawa based think tank, and will take the form of a panel discussion moderated by Diana Carney and include as panelists  Carolyn Acker (founder of Pathways to Education), Zanny Minton Beddoes (the economics editor at The Economist), Ron Haskins (senior fellow at The Brookings Institution), and me.

The conclusion to my paper, “Public policies for equality and social mobility”, continues:

Continue reading “Public policies for equality and social mobility”