Inequality and Revolution
Yes, I said the “R’ word. In order to persuade folks about the problems of “inequality” it would of course be nice to:
- Define precisely what inequality is. Are we talking about absolute inequality? Relative inequality.
- Tell us how we can actually measure it.
- Follow the SAME people over time. I’m sorry, but there is very little information embedded in cross-sectional measures of inequality. And EVEN IF you have a dynamic set of data, I am still not convinced you can learn too much. If Bill Gates walked into my office right now, measured inequality in my office would change, dramatically. So????
- Tell us what kind of inequality matters. People say “income” I think because that’s what tax authorities seem to collect. Why not wealth inequality? Or inequality in ownership in real property? Or of course consumption inequality? Or inequality in the ability to be productive? Or cognitive inequality? Of physical inequality, including height and attractiveness? Or of course, inequality in access to political power?
- Explain clearly, that despite whatever trend you measure (which I argue is really hard to do), anyone should actually care, aside from the author telling us we should care. This is of course trite on my part, but what percentage of the population first knows the first thing about what inequality is and second that they really, truly, deeply care about it?
- Have a darn good explanation for why such inequality exists. This is again not easy to do. I’d argue if I had to that inequality isn’t “produced” or “made” by anyone, despite the rhetoric out there. It, too, like language or a system of prices, emerges as a result of the millions and millions of interactions between human beings in the world. And seeing as this is very likely a spontaneously “formed” order, not of anyone’s particular design (yes, I know, George Bush and his evil minions MADE inequality what it is … why, exactly?), then it would be an inordinately complex task to figure out how and what to do about it even if you were to demonstrate such a thing were a problem.
- Are there external costs imposed on society as a result of any one person’s particular actions? In other words, provide a clear justification, aside from “I don’t like it” to do something. Because increasingly, “I don’t like it” is about all I seem to be seeing and hearing from people – and this is not just about inequality, but really about recycling, wage determination and a whole host of other outcomes in between. Please do cite the “scientific consensus” on what inequality is supposed to be doing to damage us, and please do remember that …
- … if your worry is access to political power, it does not at all follow from your premises that “doing something about inequality” is the solution. I find this a particularly absurd argument for the following reason: if inequality is harmful because the oligarchy is about to run roughshod over us and exploit us, you are telling me that you are actually going to use the political force of the very government you are worried about to “do something” about inequality? And in my mind, this is the very same government that “you guys” argue led to the inequality in the first place? What, then, are you suggesting? Are you suggesting, with a straight face, that only one group of recalcitrant, opportunistic jackasses is in Washington, DC and the state capitols?
- Which leads me, sort of, to the title of the post. You want a revolution? Interestingly enough people write about such things. One of the very interesting observations in this book (admittedly old and admittedly narrowly focused) is that revolutions do NOT generally appear to be happening at times of particularly high or “problematic” wealth inequality. No sir. What the author finds is actually quite the opposite. Model that.
I was going to write about a particularly hard conundrum regarding rent and the 5th amendment, but that’ll have to wait until next week, I am sure you are eagerly waiting for it.