Solve our inequality by focusing on society's poorest
With Thomas Piketty's book, 'Capital in the 21st Century', rising to number one on bestseller lists, inequality has become central to the debate over economic policy. Mr Piketty, and much of this discussion, focuses on the sharp increases in the share of income and wealth going to the top 1pc, .1pc and .01pc of the population.
This is indeed a critical issue. Take the United States: whatever the resolution of particular numerical arguments, it is almost certain that the share of income going to the top 1pc of the population has risen by 10 percentage points over the last generation, and that the share of the bottom 90pc has fallen by a comparable amount. The only groups that have seen faster income growth than the top 1pc are the top .1pc and top .01pc.
This discussion helps push policy in constructive directions. Taxes can be reformed to eliminate loopholes and become more progressive, while also promoting a more efficient allocation of investment.
In areas ranging from local zoning laws to intellectual property protection, from financial regulation to energy subsidies, public policy now bestows great fortunes on those whose primary skill is working the political system rather than producing great products and services. There is a clear case for policy measures to reduce profits from such rent-seeking activities, as a number of economists, notably Dean Baker and the late Mancur Olsen, have emphasised.
Unless one regards envy as a virtue, the key reason for concern about inequality is that lower- and middle-income workers have too little – not that the rich have too much. So in judging policies relating to inequality, the criterion should be what their impact will be on the middle class and the poor.
On any reasonable reading of the evidence starting where the United States is today, more could be done to increase tax progressivity without doing any noticeable damage to the prospects for economic growth.
It is important to remember, however, that important aspects of inequality are unlikely to be transformed just by limited income redistribution. Consider two fundamental components of life: health and the ability to provide opportunity for children.
Barry Bosworth and his colleagues at the Brookings Institution have examined changes in life expectancy starting at age 55 for the cohort of people born in 1920 and the cohort born in 1940. They found that the richest men gained roughly six years in life expectancy, those in the middle class gained roughly four years, and those in the lowest part of the distribution gained two years. To put this in perspective, the elimination or doubling of cancer mortality would mean less than a four-year change in life expectancy.
Why these differences? They more likely have to do with lifestyle and variations in diet and stress than the ability to afford medical care – especially since the figures refer to relatively aged people, all of whom, once they reach 65, fall under Medicare.
Over the last two generations, the gap in educational achievement between the children of the rich and the children of the poor has doubled. While the college enrollment rate for children from the lowest quarter of the income distribution has increased from 6pc to 8pc, the rate for children from the highest quarter has risen from 40pc to 73pc.
What has driven these trends? No doubt there are many factors. But a crucial one has to be that the average affluent child now receives 6,000 hours more enrichment activity – for example, being read to, taken to a museum, coached in a sport or other kind of stimulation provided by adults – than the average poor child, and this gap has greatly increased since the 1970s.
A famous literary spat between 1920s novelist F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway has been boiled down over time to a succinct, if apocryphal, exchange. Fitzgerald: "The rich are different from you and me." Hemingway's retort: "Yes, they have more money."
These observations on health and the ability to provide opportunity for children suggest that the differences between the rich and everyone else are not only about money but about things that are even more fundamental.
If society is to become more just and inclusive, it will be necessary to craft policies that address the rapidly increasing share of money income going to the rich. But it is crucial to recognise that measures to support the rest of the population are at least equally important.
It would be a tragedy if this new focus on inequality and on great fortunes diverted attention from the most fundamental tasks of any democratic society – supporting the health and education of all its citizens.
Larry Summers is a former US treasury secretary.