Thoughts on possible and perceived income inequality

Someone in my family sent me “Standard of Living Is in the Shadows as Election Issue,” which is about how we allegedly need to break “out of a decade of income stagnation that has afflicted the middle class and the poor and exacerbated inequality.” But measuring standard of living solely through income has a couple of major problems. One is that a lot of people are getting life improvements through non-income-based measures (surfing the Internet is an obvious example). It also appears that the average basket of goods consumption is changing. Anyone who has to or chooses to consume health care or education is really hurting. Anyone who isn’t is arguably benefiting from the major drop in prices for virtually all manufactured goods.

I’m not convinced that income inequality has changed as much as the media believes it has. Robert J. Gordon wrote “Has the Rise in American Inequality Been Exaggerated?,” which argues that the indices used to measure inequality are flawed, that a lot of income is now needlessly spent on housing (primarily because so many cities restrict housing supply through various means, including arbitrary parking requirements and height limits), and that behavioral choices and changes may have changed perceived inequality. I don’t want to argue the merits of Gordon’s paper. His explanations are at least plausible, and that the more one tries to measure these kinds of changes, the harder it is to really know if what one is measuring is real or evidence of statistical artifacts or measurement biases. Standard of living arguments face the same issues.

I mentioned the kinds of goods we consume in the first paragraph. We have large incentive problems built into healthcare, education, and government, all of which are growing faster than inflation and have been for decades. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better discusses these issues. Cowen also says:

More and more, ‘production’—that word my fellow economists have been using for generations—has become interior to the human mind rather than set on a factory floor. Maybe a tweet doesn’t look like much, but its value lies in the mental dimension. We use Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and other Web services to construct a complex meld of stories, images, and feelings in our minds. No single bit from the Web seems so weighty on its own, but the resulting blend is rich in joy, emotion, and suspense.

This might be overly utopian: consider the arguments of Sherry Turkle’s Together Alone or Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, neither of which may be fully persuasive but which still give me pause about the Internet as a “resulting blend. . . rich in joy, emotion, and suspense.”

At least “Standard of Living Is in the Shadows” understands this: “The causes of income stagnation are varied and lack the political simplicity of calls to bring down the deficit or avert another Wall Street meltdown.” The Wall Street meltdown is also a symptom, not a cause, of underlying problems. This is also probably true:

Maybe the biggest reason for optimism is that there is still a strong argument that both globalization and automation help the economy in the long run. This argument remains popular with economists: Trade allows countries to specialize in what they do best, while technology creates opportunities to extend and improve life that never before existed.

Previous periods of rapid economic change also created problems that seemed to be permanent but were not. Neither the cotton gin nor the steam engine nor the automobile created mass unemployment.

I don’t pretend to have answers to these questions, but both major political want to sell easy and probably wrong answers. A critical mass of voters haven’t revolted, or won’t revolt. I don’t see the end game. But we may also get self-driving cars, 3-D printing, and human genetic modification in the next decade. All three are big, transformative technologies that may alter the fabric of human life in major and unforeseeable ways. Remember that a huge number of technologies diffused through society incredibly quickly during the depression (radio being the best known). In my own case, for example, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple’s digital reading devices have made self-publishing pragmatic in a way that it wasn’t prior to about 2010 or so, and that’s a pretty big win for me, given my experience with literary agents.

There does, however, seem to be a pervasive societal sense over the last four years that something has gone wrong.

In an e-mail, one friend said this: “These days, I feel like much of society is living in some sort of shared delusion, where people want what they want but are blithely unaware of the effects of their desires” in the context of a link to Branford Marsalis’ take on students today. Marsalis says that he’s learned that “students today are completely full of shit. [. . .] Much like the generation before them, the only thing they’re really interested in is you telling them how right they are and how good they are.” I said to my friend:

I suspect people have always been “living in some sort of shared delusion, where people want what they want but are blithely unaware of the effects of their desires,” but wealth has enabled us to indulge these desires and shared delusions in new ways. And “shared delusion” as a small and relatively unimportant percentage of GDP / government spending is a cheap, affordable thrill. But shared delusion in an environment where economic growth is weak—I tend to buy the Tyler Cowen argument espoused in The Great Stagnation, along with Peter Thiel’s addendums, though I’m more than willing to consider alternate points of view—is much harder. A lot of people are clawing for a bigger slice of a limited pie, which is a more substantial problem than a lot of people clawing for a sliver of a growing pie. Most people don’t even understand the problems, or try to genuinely understand; it’s easier to fit small pieces of complex problems and phenomena into an existing social / political worldview than it is to try getting a handle on the problem domain and the forces in play (most of the political posts I’ve seen on Facebook look like mood affiliation and simple, Haidt-style posturing and mood affiliation than anything else). The delusion isn’t new, but the large climate /environment has changed. The scale of the delusion has changed too, and scale has qualities of its own.

But I still wonder about something real: when someone makes it really rich (Astors, Vanderbilts, or, today, Gates, Ellison), there’s a tendency for the wealth and the kinds of behaviors that led to the major wealth in the first place to be diluted over time and across generations (think of Paris Hilton as a salient media example). I wonder if that also happens to some extent at the level of countries, but over centuries instead of decades. Most of the time I tend to guess not—the wealthiest countries in 1800 are still mostly the wealthiest countries today, with a couple of notable exceptions (Argentina has gone down, South Korea up)—but it’s still something I ponder. Changing wealth distributions play into this too, although I’m not really sure how.

The preceding paragraphs might be overly pessimistic. Let’s take the long view: things are actually pretty good. The Soviets aren’t threatening us with total annihilation (and vice-versa: the news that Kennedy seriously considered a first strike in the 60s is really scary), we’re not in the Great Depression, there’s still lots of cool stuff happening, books are cheaper than ever, and virtually everyone has a magic box that lets them communicate with almost anyone, anywhere, any time. The minutia and stupidity of politics is being enabled in new ways, but I think the basic content isn’t so different from the past. By virtually every metric people are better off today than they were 30 or 40 years ago (psychologically speaking, I’m not so sure, but we’ll leave that to the side). Anyone who has had medical treatment that wouldn’t have been possible 40 years ago is aware of this.

As I said above, we may also get self-driving cars, 3-D printing, and human genetic modification in the next decade. These technologies might be overhyped or not pan out. But I still think:

Pretty neat!

People who are well-equipped to take advantage of modern nutrition and communication are in an especially good position. People who fall into the defaults—lots of simple sugars and fast foods, four or five hours of TV of dubious value every day—might not be. Simply being a consumer might be getting harder. So is following default paths. Certainly I derive a huge amount of benefit from being part of modern communication networks, but the kind of person who doesn’t care that much about writing or artistic production or whatever might not care or benefit.

In Name of the Rose Adso thinks: “As I lay on my pallet, I concluded that my father should not have sent me out into the world, which was more complicated than I had thought. I was learning too many things” (179). But we can’t avoid getting sent out into the world. All we can do is hope we have or can develop the strength and fortitude necessary to make a go of it. Maybe the very wealthy, who have inherited wealth, can avoid much of the world, but that will only last for a generation or two, and then it’s back against the hard rock face of reality, whether we’re ready for it or not.

School, incidentally, does a poor job of presenting the rock face, which is another issue for another, but I think it’s possible to present that rock face without being a jerk about it. I try to do so.

I also try to remember that life is hard. Even when it’s beautiful.

One response

  1. Pingback: Links: Data and stories, cops, bikes, governments, cities, and more! « The Story's Story

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