A recent article in the New York Times by Dierdre McCloskey boldly states that the answer to income inequality is to allow unfettered growth through free market forces. Unfortunately, this thesis comes straight out of the anti-Communist 1950s. McCloskey puts up a strawman that proponents of addressing inequality directly want to redistribute all wealth via grabbing all assets of the wealthy. Her version of how the economy has worked, and the policy proposals to address inequality are incorrect.
As I posted previously, we’ve already run the experiment comparing the performance of a market-based economy (West Germany) to a centrally-planned socialist economy (East Germany), and the market-based more than doubled the output of the socialist one. That said, the past West German (and the current German) is a far cry from a “free market” economy. It was and is heavily regulated with substantial redistributive policies. No one is seriously advocating that the U.S. move to a Communist economy (at least not since the 1950s)–they are suggesting that the U.S. consider policies that could redistribute wealth to improve the welfare of almost everyone.
Increased inequality has been found to decrease economic growth, contrary to McCloskey’s implied assertion. Both the OECD and IMF found negative consequences from increased wealth in the top 20% of households. Other studies show that historic U.S. GDP growth has not been impeded by high marginal tax rates, either for individual or corporate taxes.
She also misses the real reason as to why inequality is a concern. She dismisses it as simple envy. But it’s really about relative political and economic power. The wealthy are able to exert more bargaining power in economic transactions, and their greater influence on the political process is well documented.
As a side note, McCloskey appears to grossly underestimating the share of wealth and income held by the wealthiest segment of U.S. society. Her calculation appears to assume that wealth is distributed evenly across all of the income quintiles (“If we took every dime from the top 20 percent of the income distribution and gave it to the bottom 80 percent, the bottom folk would be only 25 percent better off.”) In fact, a recent estimate by the Federal Reserve Board shows that the top 0.1% of U.S. households hold over 40% of the wealth. That means that redistributing the wealth of just 0.1% will lead to a 40% increase in the wealth of everyone else. I’m not advocating such a radical solution, but it does demonstrate the potential scale of redistributive policies. For example, redistributing just 25% of the wealth of the richest 1% could lead to a 10% increase in the wealth of the remaining 99.9%.