'Fight Inequality!' Is a Poor Rallying Cry

I have come to believe that a focus on economic inequality is counterproductive, as the idea is not capable of inspiring a broad enough swath of the American public.

Inequality, of income or wealth, is one of the most frequently invoked ideas in policy discussions today. Yet a study of the concept reveals uncomfortable truths, namely that most Americans don’t mind inequality nearly as much as pundits and academics suggest.

A recent research paper, by Graham Wright of Brandeis University, found that polled attitudes about economic inequality don’t correlate very well with the desire for government to address it. There is even partial evidence, once controls are introduced into the statistics, that talk of inequality reduces the support for doing something about it. So, if you are a conservative, the next time you get upset about that Paul Krugman column, keep in mind he might just be, unintentionally, working for you.

It’s not obvious why such counterintuitive results might be the case. One possibility is that a lot of talk about inequality gives the audience the impression that it is inevitable, and thereby renders potential remedies less urgent. Another speculation is that human beings are constantly evaluating the status of others. To the extent analysts reiterate that some group of citizens doesn’t have as much, maybe they’re actually reminding us that those citizens hold a lower social status. Perhaps subconsciously, we then respond by thinking those citizens deserve less, or by downgrading the urgency of their needs.

Another possibility is that talk about economic inequality increases political polarization, which lowers the chance of effective action. Or that criticizing American society may cause us to feel less virtuous, which in turn may cause us to act with less virtue. Perhaps if critics of inequality praised this nation more for what is has done to redress inequality, rather than criticizing it for the gaps, that might cement a self-image of Americans who are capable of tackling this problem, and thus spur interest in additional progress. That mechanism shouldn’t sound so strange to anyone who has tried to raise children.

When I bring up such points in dialogue, I’ve found that a lot of my fellow academicians retreat to the moral platitude that the “good guys” simply need to fight harder against the special interest groups. Maybe so, or maybe that response is just another way of digging in deeper to what so far has been a losing battle. The reality is that income inequality has gone up a great deal since the early 1980s, and we haven’t done so much to reverse the basic trend. The potentially egalitarian effects of  tax increases under the past two Democratic presidents and Obamacare have been outweighed by globalization, which benefits most those individuals who can access global markets, and by increases in the returns to highly skilled labor. The reality is that government expenditures have not become radically more poverty-reducing over the last few decades, although we do send more resources to the elderly.

Over that same period of time, we have published quite a few best-selling books about economic inequality. And now the Republican Party controls the major branches of the federal government, as well as dominating at the state level. President Donald Trump boasted he was a billionaire, and his opponents tried to take him down by suggesting he perhaps was worth only a few hundred million dollars. That's not exactly the kind of debate you would hope to hear among radical egalitarians.

A variety of other research papers have been showing that inequality is not a major concern per se. One recent study by Matthew Weinzierl of Harvard Business School shows that most Americans are quite willing to accept economic inequality that stems from brute luck, and that they are inclined to assume that inequality is justified unless proved otherwise.

From the psychology department at Yale University, a recent study by Christina Starmans, Mark Sheskin, and Paul Bloom shows that people do not object to inequality, rather it is unfairness that bothers them. And if you are very upset about economic inequality, I would caution you against assuming the particular inequalities that bother you are perceived by the American public as so dreadfully unfair.

Increasingly, I have come to believe that a focus on economic inequality is counterproductive, as the idea is not capable of inspiring a broad enough swath of the American public. I also find it striking how frequently anti-inequality messages come from academia, which in reality has a remarkably inegalitarian system of allocating rewards. For instance, consider the differences in pay, security and working conditions for tenured professors versus adjuncts; citation inequality is very high too.

Maybe the academic critics of economic inequality don’t really care so much about the concept either.