Overstating the Costs of Inequality

In recent years, inequality has become the core economic concern of the American left. The gap between the haves and have-nots is understood to be the fatal flaw of our economic system — a fundamental problem that is the source of countless other difficulties. To hear many liberals tell it, increasing inequality is holding back growth, crushing the prospects of the poor and middle class, and even undermining American democracy. Such concerns are prominent in President Obama’s rhetoric, and seem also to drive key parts of his policy agenda — especially the relentless pursuit of higher taxes on the wealthy. As the president put it in his second inaugural address in January, he believes “that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”

The idea that our economy is held back by inequality is echoed in the claims of some of the nation’s most prominent economists. Princeton professor (and Nobel laureate) Paul Krugman and David Card of the University of California, Berkeley, contend that inequality hurts economic mobility. Princeton’s Alan Krueger (now chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers) and Columbia’s Joseph Stiglitz (another Nobelist) think it dampens economic growth. Along with Raghuram Rajan, former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, Stiglitz also argues that inequality was behind the financial crisis. Cornell economist Robert Frank and former labor secretary Robert Reich are convinced that it fuels the indebtedness of the middle class. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Daron Acemoglu believes that inequality enables economic elites to capture the machinery of government and thus ultimately produces national decline.

Read the rest of the article at the National Affairs website or download a fully annotated version of the essay.