Income Inequality (29): The “Get Off the Couch” Solution

When leftists complain about high levels of income inequality, their opponents on the right sometimes argue that inequality is the natural outcome of personal desert. If you’re wealthy, you should be praised for your work, and if you find yourself on the wrong side of inequality you should invest more effort and try harder to be socially mobile. If you think inequality is a problem, then in fact you blame the industrious for being industrious and you exculpate the rest. Societies like the US offer lots of opportunities to escape the social class of your parents, and many do in fact escape. So if you don’t, look at yourself first.

This view is actually quite common on the right. According to a Pew survey, 38 percent of Americans are judgmental, declaring that poverty stems from a lack of individual effort, while 46 percent does not fault the poor, agreeing that their plight is the outcome of unfavorable circumstances. A large majority of Republicans – 57 to 27 – says that people are poor because of a lack of effort.

The right-wing view has a certain prima facie appeal. We all believe that effort should be rewarded. And when social mobility is easy and people aren’t artificially held back and tied to the class of their parents, then perhaps inequality is indeed the result of unequal effort and lifestyle choices. In other words, inequality is what people deserve. If there are few or no obstacles to mobility and people have some level of equal opportunity, then they basically choose their position in society: they choose to invest effort and develop their skills, or they don’t.

However, upon closer inspection the narrative is unpersuasive. It’s not always true that individuals can simply decide to develop their skills and invest effort in their social mobility. Skills aren’t just “developed”; some people are born with more talent than other people, or with talents that yield more financial profit than other talents. True, talent requires development and effort, but even effort may be a naturally acquired capacity or a capacity that requires favorable conditions in early childhood. I think we all agree that a stable and reasonably affluent family life as well as a good education are indispensable, on average, for the development of talent and of a personal ethic that favors effort and discipline. Many people at the wrong end of inequality can offer some of this to their children, but to a much lesser degree than wealthier parents. Here are some data on so-called enrichment expenditures.

And it’s not just expenses. The children of wealthy parents have other advantages compared to poor children, advantages they wouldn’t have in a less unequal society, for instance networks, internship opportunities etc. Because of extra expenses in education and other less material advantages, these children are more likely to end up in a high income group as adults. As a result, inequality counteracts social mobility. And we see that in the numbers: the more unequal a society, the less social mobility. That’s the message of Miles Corak’s famous Great Gatsby Curve.

If you argue that income inequality is not really a problem when there is a high level of social mobility and when people have good opportunities to become socially mobile – in other words when they have good opportunities to climb the social ladder and escape the social class or income group into which they were born – then you’re really taking things backwards. Social mobility can’t be a solution to inequality because inequality makes mobility very difficult. High levels of social mobility assume that we create more equality of opportunity. However, this is a dead end. As I’ve argued here, equality of opportunity is a highly problematic and unrealistic concept.

More posts on income inequality are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (83): The Snowball Effect of Equality of Opportunity

Like social mobility, equality of opportunity is one of those vague political ideals favored by those who want to offer a “vision of the future” but don’t really know what they’re talking about. I agree that it sounds nice, and no one would want to be against it. But the concept of equality of opportunity is highly problematic, at least for those willing to think it through to its logical conclusions. What you get is an initially modest sounding goal – modest compared to, let’s say, equality of outcomes – which then rapidly snowballs into something huge and, in the end, something highly undesirable. Here’s how this snowballing can occur in 7 steps (I personally gave up at around the third step):

  1. Equality of opportunity, in a basic sense, just means that careers, jobs and positions are open to all applicants and that applicants are judged only on their merit and qualifications. Their social class, family connections, friendships etc. don’t matter. Equality of opportunity (henceforth EO) is therefore a condition for meritocracy.
  2. But then people should also have an equal opportunity to acquire merit and to become qualified. In other words, they should have EO in education as well. Slots in school – or perhaps even slots in the best schools – should be open to all applicants, or at least to all those who are willing and able to study. And not just formally “open”, but accessible: poor students or people belonging to historically disadvantaged groups should get scholarships, grants, subsidies, preferential admission etc.
  3. However, all this is useless if people don’t have an equal opportunity to become willing and able to study. Children, especially poor children, should have the opportunity to grow up in an environment that fosters an ethic favoring work and study. That may imply abolishing poverty and other circumstances that sometimes inhibit a good ethic, since we want all people to have an equal opportunity to raise children. We don’t want EO by way of forced sterilization of the poors or the redistribution of their children.
  4. It’s not just deprivation that undermines EO. What about those born with disabilities or without native talents? Does not EO require that we also remedy or offset these kinds of disadvantages? After all, even if the severely disabled or the talentless have (acquired) the right ethic, have managed to get into a good school, have studied hard, and aren’t discriminated against by prejudiced employers, it often doesn’t make economic sense to hire them. So, EO may require that they are either compensated in some way, or that people like that aren’t born in the first place. Genetic engineering, designer babies and so on may then enhance EO.
  5. What about ugly people? There’s clearly a bias against them. They are often treated as if they have no talents, or as if they are disabled. And extreme ugliness can just as well be seen as a disability in the world we live in. Again, genetic engineering may help. Or maybe legislation against discrimination in employment should include rules against lookism. And if such legislation isn’t effective, then compensation should be an option. Or perhaps even subsidized plastic surgery. How else could one guarantee EO for the ugly among us?
  6. EO can also be undermined by persistent differences in early socialization. For example, if girls are successfully socialized into domestic roles, then no amount of schooling, anti-discrimination legislation or employer benevolence will give girls and women EO.
  7. Imagine now that we have solved all those problems and successfully broadened EO to include groups that don’t have it automatically. People will be qualified and meritorious, but in different fields because they have different preferences and different talents. This leads to a final problem for EO: EO is only a fact if we have solved the previous 6 problems and if all human capacities are encouraged and rewarded. Imagine someone has a talent only for classical music, but all consumers have an aversion for classical music. She obviously doesn’t have EO. It doesn’t matter that she is free to apply to all positions, that employers do not have a bias against her, that she received a subsidized education in music, that she has the right ethic and that she hasn’t been socialized into an unchosen role. If people aren’t interested she won’t be able to be a classical musician, except as a hobby for which she may or may not have time. So maybe she should be compensated. In general, EO depends on customers of the goods and services produced and marketed by people free and able to act on the opportunities that they have. Customers may be reluctant to buy goods or services that they don’t care about or that are produced by blacks, poors, gays etc. EO may then require anti-discrimination laws imposed on customers.

I guess I’ve lost most of you a few steps back. And rightly so. EO does have a tendency to become a reductio ad absurdum. This doesn’t mean that disability, lookism, socialization, the lottery of birth, customer prejudice etc. aren’t important problems. On the contrary. The thing is that these problems should perhaps not be framed in terms of EO. And legislation, compensation, subsidies and so on are perhaps not the best solutions.

However, EO should remain a worthy ideal – if we give it up we’ll only have nepotism and discrimination as an alternative – but we’ll have to find a way to limit its scope and stop the risk of snowballing. I’ve already offered a possible limit in earlier posts. You won’t be surprised to hear that human rights should be the outer limits of EO.

More on EO here and here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (82): The Link Between Human Rights and Social Mobility

Most of us think about social mobility as some kind of political ideal or even as a necessary feature of a just society. Many theories of justice make space for social mobility, as they do for equality of opportunity, fairness, the wellbeing of the worst off etc. And indeed, it’s hard to be against social mobility. Cynics might say that politicians extol the virtues of social mobility in order to camouflage or even justify actual inequalities (“if people can be socially mobile, then the resulting inequalities are deserved”, or “inequalities aren’t bad because people can be mobile and escape their class”). However, it’s not because a concept is misused for political reasons that it loses it’s theoretical or even practical value. If democracy is used as a cover to invade Iraq, then that doesn’t mean democracy is bad.

Hence, we should embrace social mobility. Human rights as well are often seen as a political ideal or a requirement of justice. How do social mobility and human rights relate to each other? At first sight, there’s no relationship at all, except that both are part of a lot of theories of justice. Social mobility is about the possibility to enter another – usually higher – income class than the one you were born in (the one of your parents). Human rights, on the other hand, are generally silent about income, except in rare cases such as the right to a decent standard of living or the right to unemployment insurance. And those cases are about minimum levels of income, not about the equal opportunity to achieve any level of income. Most human rights aren’t about income at all, let alone changes in income. Hence, social mobility is not required by human rights.

Does that mean that a society without social mobility can be one where all human rights are perfectly respected? It depends. Let’s imagine a kind of Dickensian society in which everyone knows their place. Poor people have poor children. Those poor children also have poor children. And all poor people die poor. Same thing for the rich. At first sight, such a society, or even one closely resembling it, is free of rights violations, and yet it clearly does not value human equality. And if you look more closely, it doesn’t really value human rights either. For instance, it’s likely that this society does not offer equal rights to education, for if it did some poor people would break ranks. Neither does such a society respect non-discrimination rules at work. Companies and government employers are probably very classist in their employment decisions, otherwise one would tend to see some poor again breaking ranks. Non-discrimination rules are human rights, and this is therefore another example of the way in which human rights are violated in a society lacking social mobility.

In short, a Dickensian society like the one described here has to be extremely classist and has to marshal extensive means in order to keep people in their place. It can only do so by way of massive violations of some human rights.

While a society like this is the exception in our modern world, there are many societies that resemble it. As a rule, we can say that societies with less than average social mobility will have more than average rights violations, all else being equal. Hence, social mobility is relevant to human rights in the sense that an effort to suppress social mobility almost always has an impact on the level of respect for human rights.

I guess this means that a society without social mobility can never be one where all human rights are perfectly respected. One can imagine a society in which there’s no discrimination, equal rights, no poverty and equal opportunity, but in which people are still socially mobile. A child of middle class parents can turn out to be a genius and enter the top earning class. Even in human rights utopia, one doesn’t want to enforce equal pay for everyone because incentives are good (in general). Vice versa, the children of genius parents can turn out to be average and end up in a lower income class. If this doesn’t happen, one can assume discrimination and favoritism.

The opposite isn’t the case: a society without social mobility can never be one where all human rights are perfectly respected, but a society with social mobility can be a brutal dictatorship:

Imagine a dictator who imprisons his subjects, but gives wealth and power to some chosen at random. There’ll be a lot of social mobility, but no justice or liberty. (source)

This shows that social mobility, although difficult to dismiss, is not enough because it does not require freedom and rights. It can even hide and justify deeper injustices. It’s also not enough because it removes attention away from the conditions of life in the lowest income strata. Instead of making it easier for people to enter higher income strata, it’s often better to improve their lives where they are: make their jobs better and more pleasant; give them a say in their companies; focus on the content of their jobs etc. Often, that is what they want rather than a higher station in life.

More on social mobility is here. Other posts in this series are here.

What is Equality? (4): Equality of Opportunity

I wasn’t very pleased with my previous attempts, so here’s one more. Equality of opportunity is a type of equality that’s usually seen as a very moderate one, one that’s not too demanding – especially compared to other types of equality that focus on equal outcomes – and hence it’s supposed to be acceptable to those of us who are a bit squeamish about equality. However, I’ll try to show that this is a mistake. Real equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and difficult project. In order to show that, I’ll talk first about some of the causes of inequality of opportunity, and then about the things we can do to reduce this inequality.

Four source of inequality of opportunity

1. Unequal endowments and circumstances

Equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project, conditional on the willingness to invest an equal amount of effort. Of course, in reality, people will never have such an equal chance. The lottery of birth means that we are unable to choose to be born in a wealthy family with caring parents who can finance our education and motivate us to achieve our goals. It also means that we can’t choose which talents and genes we are born with. Talents and genetic differences are no more a matter of choice than the character and means of our parents. And genetic differences affect our talents, skills and maybe even our capacity to invest effort. (It’s not impossible that they even determine our choices of projects in which we want to be successful). So two people with the same life projects will only rarely have the same chance of success.

What can we do to equalize their chances? We can’t (yet) redistribute beneficial genes or disable harmful ones, and we don’t want to intervene in people’s families (and force parents to behave in a certain way or possibly even redistribute children). So we can’t remove the impact of genes and parents. But we can correct it, partially. For example, we can compensate people born with a genetic defect that reduces their chances of success in their life projects. We can offer people suffering from a genetic disorder that has left them paralyzed certain instruments to enhance their mobility. We can offer children born in dysfunctional or poor families free education, child benefits and encouragement. Etc.

2. Discrimination

Equality of opportunity also means correcting for lack of opportunity not resulting from the lottery of birth. If African Americans are systematically discriminated in employment, then they don’t enjoy equality of opportunity. They don’t have an equal chance of success in employment. If working for a certain company is part of an African American’s life project, and this company prefers white employees, then this African American doesn’t have an equal chance of success in his life project compared to whites with the same project.

The rule of equality of opportunity is only violated when the African American is rejected for no other reason than his race, and when this rejection diminishes that person’s opportunities (in other words, when this rejection is common and widespread rather than occasional; see here). If his skills, talents, merit and efforts are equal to those of other candidates, he should have an equal chance of employment or advancement. Equality of opportunity means that he should be allowed to compete for positions on equal terms, and that the difference between winners and losers in such competitions can only be a difference based on skills, talents, merit or efforts. However, even when he is rejected for the position because his skills, talents, merit and efforts are below the level of those of other candidates, he may not have been granted equality of opportunity. That is because the lottery of birth (point 1 above) has landed him in a discriminated group and because his lesser skills and willingness to invest effort and strive for merit may be caused by this discrimination.

Even if all are eligible to apply for a … position and applications are judged fairly on their merits, one might hold that genuine or substantive equality of opportunity requires that all have a genuine opportunity to become qualified. (source)

3. Misfortune in life

The natural lottery can reduce your equality of opportunity. Misfortune in the circumstances of your upbringing (bad parents, bad schools etc.) can also do it. And discrimination throughout your life as well. On top of that, other types of misfortune can limit your opportunities: you may get sick or have an accident. So we have to promote equality of opportunity at every step in people’s lives.

4. Neglect of abilities and talents

And there’s yet one additional cause of inequality of opportunity. Until now, I’ve assumed that equality of opportunity means that different people should have an equal chance of success in a certain life project. But maybe people have an equal chance of success in whatever life project they choose (as long as the project is morally acceptable of course). If society recognizes, rewards and encourages only certain talents and abilities, then some people will not be able to be successful in the life projects that they choose and that are compatible with their talents and abilities. For example, it’s fair to say that someone like Elton John would not have enjoyed equality of opportunity in Sparta or Saudi Arabia.

How to promote equality of opportunity?

If we accept all that, then the promotion of equality of opportunity involves different things:

1. Social structures or traditions

At the most basic level, it means getting rid of social structures or traditions that assign people to fixed places in a social hierarchy, to occupations or to life projects on a basis that has nothing to do with skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts. Patriarchy, in which women are forced to focus on family life and raising children, is incompatible with equality of opportunity. As is a caste society, a society in which racial or other minorities (or majorities) are systematically discriminated against, or a class society in which the class of your parents, your blood line, your religion, your friends and relationships (nepotism) determine your chances of success in life. Getting rid of such social structures and traditions may simply require legislation outlawing them, or may also require affirmative action or positive discrimination and other forms of compensation for past wrongs (if some still benefit in the present from past wrongs, then equality of opportunity will not be respected simply because the wrongs have ended).

2. Equalizing skills, abilities and talents

But the promotion of equality of opportunity also means equalizing skills, abilities and talents, to the extent that this is possible (e.g. offering poor children free education of the same quality as the education and private tutoring offered to children born in wealthy families). And compensating people when this isn’t possible (e.g. give a blind man some help if we can’t cure his blindness).

3. Upgrading ambitions

And the promotion of equality of opportunity means reducing differences in merit and effort that are not the consequences of people’s voluntary choices. E.g. a child raised in a poor and dysfunctional family may have involuntarily adapted her ambitions downwards. Helping her at a young age may allow us to prevent this down-scaling of ambitions. Perhaps this down-scaling of ambitions is the result of the structures and traditions described in 1 above.

4. Other types of misfortune

The promotion of equality of opportunity also means helping people whose skills, abilities, talents, merit and efforts have been limited by misfortune different from the misfortune caused by the lottery of birth. If two people have the same ambition, talents and skill to become a lawyer – perhaps after social corrections to their initial starting positions in life (e.g. free schooling for the poorest one of them) and after legislation providing equal employment access (e.g. for the black lawyer-to-be) – but an accident leaves one of them blind, maybe society should provide that person with law books in Braille and such.

5. Recognizing abilities

And, finally, it means that a broad range of talents and abilities should be recognized and rewarded in society, with the exception of those that involve limitations of other people’s talents and abilities.

Limits of equality of opportunity

So equality of opportunity is a very ambitious and far-reaching project, contrary to what people usually believe about this type of equality. Hence we have to limit it somehow. For example, it shouldn’t extend to people’s private lives. You can’t demand that the girl next door marries you even if that’s your project in life and even if you think you’re the best candidate who didn’t have his equal opportunity. And the girl can decide not to marry you simply because you’re black. A club of racists can decide not to accept your membership request. A racist restaurant owner can decide not to serve you food on his private property. None of this diminishes your equality of opportunity, at least not as long as enough of the same opportunities exist for you elsewhere.

There will be a problem of equality of opportunity if all or many restaurants, clubs etc. turn you away. But if that’s not the case, and enough of the same opportunities remain elsewhere, even businesses can discriminate on the basis of race in their employment decisions, as long as this practice is not widespread and not part of a wider system of discrimination not limited to employment. If, in a perfectly tolerant and egalitarian society, there’s one bakery insisting on being racist and refusing to hire or serve blacks, who cares? (More here).

Equality of opportunity and statistical discrimination

However, discrimination in employment doesn’t have to be taste based, as they say. It can be mere statistical discrimination. Is that a violation of equality of opportunity? I would say yes, because discrimination is discrimination and whatever the motives are – a taste for discrimination or just prudence based of statistical averages – it diminishes the opportunities of those affected by it. People who engage in statistical discrimination make no effort to assess the skills, merit and talents of individuals.

The Causes of Poverty (56): A Lack of Social Mobility

Is a lack of, or a low level of social mobility a human rights violations? No, of course not. There is no right to be socially mobile or to end up in a different – preferably higher – social class than your parents. However, indirectly there is a link between social mobility and human rights. For instance, there is a human right not to suffer poverty. Poverty can have many causes and so there can be many things that violate our right not to be poor. One of those things is hereditary poverty: many of us are poor because our parents are poor. If our parents are poor, they won’t be able to offer us a good education, a social network and other resources necessary to make it in this world. The wealthy marry the wealthy, invest a lot of time and money in the education and socialization of their children, while the poor often have to marry in their own class and send their children to low-quality public schools. In addition, poor children tend to live in crime infested neighborhoods where drugs and violence are a constant temptations and good role models are rare. There’s also a high probability that their fathers, having grown up in the same neighborhoods and having faced the same temptations, are in prison. Some may occasionally escape their poverty, but a lot of poverty is hereditary.

Hereditary poverty is just another word for lack of social mobility. If there is no or little social mobility in your society, if rules, institutions and mentalities make it hard for people to escape the social class of their parents, then this not only reduces fairness, just reward and opportunity, but it also determines the kind of poverty in society: poverty becomes something like a hereditary disease, the poor become a permanent underclass, and society no longer helps people to break the vicious cycle of hereditary poverty and to enjoy fair and equal opportunities.

But it’s not just the type of poverty that is very specific in a society with low levels of mobility. Also the beliefs about poverty take a particular form. The typical view is that the poor are poor because of a “culture of poverty“, because they are undeserving, because they are burdened with low inherited IQ etc. Stories such as these are necessary in order to explain and justify hereditary poverty in a society that has decided not to offer better opportunities to the poor. The fact that some poor people are indeed undeserving and stupid is then brandished as a pars pro toto argument that blackens the reputation of a whole class of people and excuses the lack of fairness of the rest of society.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (24): Self-Confidence

A lot of income inequality is hereditary: wealthy parents can offer their children better education, connections, support and other resources that help to advance their prospects in life. Hence, these children will also be comparatively wealthy, on average. An initially unequal wealth distribution results in a self-perpetuating and perhaps even self-enhancing cycle of income inequality. It’s therefore unlikely that a socially mobile and meritocratic society arises automatically.

One of those “other resources” is self-confidence. Very confident people tend to earn more. In other words, levels of self-confidence are correlated with socioeconomic status:

University students are … poor at estimating their own test-performance and over-estimate their predicted test score. However, females, white and working class students have less inflated view of themselves. (source)

And self-confidence, like education opportunities and networking, is passed from generation to generation – not necessarily in a genetic sense. Self-confidence is, therefore, one reason – together with other parental resources – why income inequality survives the passing of generations.

What is more, there is a feedback mechanism at work between two hereditary resources, self-confidence and education: self-confidence has a beneficial effect on education. A positive self-perception has a positive impact on the expected probability of educational success:

Even small differences in initial confidence can result in diverging patterns of human capital accumulation between otherwise identical individuals. As long as initial differences in the level of self-confidence are correlated with the socioeconomic background (as a large body of empirical evidence suggests [see also above]), self-confidence turns out to be a channel through which education and earnings inequalities are transmitted across generations. (source)

Self-confidence can even improve human capital if it’s baseless, as it often is; if, in other words, it’s not grounded in superior personal qualities:

Say you have two people of equal cognitive skills, but one is over-confident about his ability and the other under-confident. The over-confident one is more likely to stick with a subject during the early steep phase of the learning curve – believing that “I can master this if only I apply myself” – whereas his under-confident colleague is likely to give up, thinking the material too difficult for him. Alternatively, the over-confident student might choose “difficult” academic subjects at high school, which qualify him for entry to some elite universities, whilst the less confident one would choose less academic subjects which disqualify him. (source)

And self-confidence does not just perpetuate income inequality when it reinforces the education opportunities of those who already have better education opportunities given to them by their parents. Self-confidence is helpful in the labor market as well, and the labor market is, like education, an area in which parental resources tend to skew opportunities (wealthy parents are better connected to possible employers, for example):

Overconfident people might select into occupations where there’s a high pay-off to the lowish probability of success, such as management, law journalism or politics. Less confident folk, under-estimating their chances, might prefer occupations which yield less skewed rewards. People misperceive overconfidence as actual ability. The overconfident job candidate is thus more likely to get the job than the more rational one. Posh white blokes can – perhaps unwittingly – manipulate the social awkwardness of others for their own advantage, and thus progress at work. (source)

Hat tip. More posts in this series are here.

Income Inequality (26): And Social Mobility

One can argue that high levels of income inequality aren’t much of a problem when social mobility is easy (social mobility being the degree at which people cross into higher or lower income levels than the ones they were born into). Inequality is then the result of skills and effort, the absence of skills and effort, or lifestyle choices. In other words, given easy mobility, inequality is what people deserve or want. If there are few or no obstacles to mobility, people basically choose their position in society: they choose to develop their skills and invest effort, or they don’t.

However, this whitewashing of inequality doesn’t work because the more unequal a society, the less social mobility there is (source).

What is the mechanism here? In part, high levels of income inequality make social mobility more difficult: when income inequality is relatively high, people at the wrong end of inequality can offer comparatively less opportunities to their children than the people at the right end – less quality schooling, less quality healthcare etc. The children of wealthy parents have relatively more advantages compared to poor children then they would have in a less unequal society, and they are therefore more likely to end up in a high income group as adults. I assume that social mobility is a good thing and that people’s income should not be determined by the income of their parents.

So instead of saying that inequality is not a problem because there is mobility, we should instead say that mobility is a problem because there is inequality.

More on social mobility here. More posts in this series are here.

Income Inequality (23): The Fable of Egalistan and Opportunistan, or the Relationship Between Income Inequality and Inequality of Opportunity

Let’s imagine two fictional societies. One – call it Egalistan – has almost total income equality, as well as consumption equality (the latter following from the former). However, people are stuck in their social roles, and there’s very limited social mobility, vertical or horizontal. The quality of education is terrible. No one has any real ambitions, and talents are dormant. However, there’s not a lot of discrimination (otherwise equality would not have been possible) and people with few or negative natural endowments are assisted so that they can come close to the average level of income. This average level, however, is rather low because people are lethargic and the high degree of equality has destroyed economic incentives.

The other society – call it Opportunistan – is very unequal: it has a very high score on the Gini coefficient for income inequality. And yet it provides a lot of social mobility and desert-based rewards, as well as good, inclusive and cheap education, and even a tax regime that doesn’t reward hereditary benefits (e.g. a high “death tax”). It also rewards a wide variety of different talents and allows people to develop their non-mainstream talents and to act on their ambitions. People with relatively little natural endowments as well as people with a handicap are assisted and jobs are reserved for them. There’s little discrimination on any basis, and people are insured against misfortune. This society therefore provides a high level of equality of opportunity. However, this equality of opportunity results in high levels of income inequality, perhaps because some people choose not to earn a lot (so-called threshold earners) or because natural endowments (like IQ or talents) are distributed in a very unequal way.

While Opportunistan is obviously more appealing than Egalistan, I don’t agree that it shouldn’t be improved. Some would argue that Opportunistan has done all it is morally obliged to do and doesn’t need to reduce the level of income inequality. I don’t think so. First, it’s not obvious that Opportunistan can maintain its equality of opportunity. Those with greater wealth and income can provide to their children resources and thus opportunities that the less wealthy cannot. The good luck of being born in a wealthy family – which is probably also a well-functioning family with a good set of values – is hard to equalize with the existing set of policies in Opportunistan. Hence, even Opportunistan will find it difficult to achieve or maintain real equality of opportunity.

So, what can Opportunistan do? Obviously, it doesn’t want to adopt the cruel and unacceptable policy of platonic child redistribution. It would lose its a priori appeal if it did. What it can do is reduce some of its income inequality. A certain level of income redistribution could remove some of the unequal benefits resulting from some people’s good fortune of being born in a wealthy family. This redistribution can, to some extent, equalize this good fortune. If there are less poor families, there are less children growing up with the wrong values or with other sets of hereditary burdens (which doesn’t mean that poor people are poor because they have the wrong values; it means that being poor tends to produce the wrong values, e.g. lack of ambition etc.).

Secondly, Opportunistan hasn’t done enough because high levels of income inequality tend to undermine the functioning of democratic institutions. Those institutions are premised on the equal influence of all voters. Obviously that’s a utopian assumption, but there’s no reason to make it more utopian than it should be. Unequal financial resources produce unequal political influence. And the same argument can be made for the judicial domain.

So, it’s I think important that we don’t delude ourselves on the merits of Opportunistan: equality of opportunity is notoriously ambitious and difficult to achieve and maintain (even though equality of outcome is generally but erroneously considered the more utopian type of equality), and yet it’s not even enough. Reducing the levels of inequality of income is also important, but not all the way towards Egalistan.

Income Inequality (22): Social Mobility in Anglo-Saxon Economies, Ctd.

After completing my older post on the subject – in which I argued that Anglo-Saxon economies don’t do a very good job promoting social mobility despite the focus on individual responsibility and policies that (should) reward merit (e.g. relatively low tax rates) – I found this graph which I thought would illustrate my point.

Although the US and other Anglo-Saxon countries aren’t in the graph, the UK is. And the effect of parental education on child earnings in the UK is particularly large. The children of the well-off and well-educated earn more and learn more than their less fortunate peers in all countries in the world, and that’s hardly surprising given the importance of a head start, both financially and intellectually. What is surprising is that this is less the case in countries which pride themselves on their systems that offer people incentives to do well (low taxes, minimal safety nets etc.).

So one wonders which fact-free parallel universe David Cameron, the new UK Prime Minister, inhabits:

The differences in child outcomes between a child born in poverty and a child born in wealth are no longer statistically significant when both have been raised by “confident and able” parents… What matters most to a child’s life chances is not the wealth of their upbringing but the warmth of their parenting. (source, my emphasis)

Extolling the virtues of good parenting can never hurt, except if you have a low boredom threshold because it’s so goddamn obvious. But making it sound like parents’ wealth or education are “insignificant” is truly grotesque and an insult to those poor parents who have children that aren’t doing very well. And even for those living in the alternative reality where only bad parents keep children back, the Conservative leader’s position in fact, and unwittingly, should lead to left-wing policies, as Chris Dillow points out:

Because of bad parenting – which begins in the womb – some people do badly in school and therefore in later life; they are less likely to be in work, and earn less even if they are. However, we can’t choose our parents; they are a matter of luck. It’s quite reasonable to compensate people for bad luck, so there’s a case for redistributing income to the relatively poor, as this is a roundabout way of compensating them for the bad luck of having a bad upbringing.

High levels of social mobility can compensate for high levels of income inequality: if people can be socially mobile, and if their earnings and education levels don’t depend on who their parents are but on their own efforts and talents, one can plausibly claim that the existing inequalities are caused by some people’s lack of effort and merit. However, the UK and the US combine two evils: low mobility and high inequality, making it seem that whatever effort you invest in your life, you’ll never get ahead of those rich lazy dumb asses. So why would you even try? Low mobility solidifies high inequality.

Just to show that the U.S. isn’t better than the U.K.:

Parental income is a better predictor of a child’s future in America than in much of Europe, implying that social mobility is less powerful. Different groups of Americans have different levels of opportunity. Those born to the middle class have about an equal chance of moving up or down the income ladder, according to the Economic Mobility Project. But those born to black middle-class families are much more likely than their white counterparts to fall in rank. The children of the rich and poor, meanwhile, are less mobile than the middle class’s. More than 40% of those Americans born in the bottom quintile remain stuck there as adults. (source)

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (19): Ideology

From Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society:

Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.

That’s the basis of trickle down economics which is a theory about how inequalities ultimately benefit everyone. It’s also the basis of tax schemes such as a flat tax that limit forced redistribution, because the invisible hand will redistribute wealth or make it trickle down automatically.

And, when trickle down is discredited and when it turns out to be difficult to prove that inequality is a universal value, we hear that inequality isn’t as big a problem as it seems, and that this is the land of opportunity where even people who are on the wrong side of inequality can make it through hard work and discipline. Even Obama seems to believe this, as is clear from his inauguration speech. That’s a classic case of the anecdote turned into a “scientific” law. Data show that social mobility isn’t what the American Dream dreamers think it is. Implicit in this story is that existing inequalities are the sole responsibilities of individuals who haven’t made diligent use of the many opportunities this land has generously provided them. Discrimination, injustice, greed and lack of compassion are obscured as causes of inequality.

In reality, inequalities are indeed greater than could possibly be defended rationally, in the words of Niebuhr. The defense based on trickle down economics has failed, as has the defense based on the claim that inequalities are the sole result of individual choices and a lack of response to opportunities (this defense completely rejects effects of discrimination, which seems to be misguided).

However, it’s not because inequalities are greater than they should be that all inequalities are wrong. Some inequalities are unavoidable or even valuable. We do want Einsteins and Picassos. Society should reward merit. We all benefit from the recognition of exceptional individuals. Nietzsche for example rightly protested against the modern habit of cutting everyone down who dares to stick his head up. Equality of outcome is in many respects distasteful. And apart from the valuable inequalities, there are unavoidable inequalities. Some inequalities that are the result of the “lottery of birth” are impossible to correct: some people are born with more talent than others or with talents that are more appreciated in the economic or cultural market; and there will always be people who are born in privileged families.We wouldn’t want to engage in genetic engineering in order to redistribute talent, and neither would we be willing to redistribute children across families (at least not for the purpose of equality of opportunity).

Other aspects of the lottery of birth, however, are more difficult to defend. Why should the good luck of being born in a wealthy family with educated parents guarantee you a better education, better healthcare and better economic prospects? But of course it isn’t just the contingency of your place of birth that determines your opportunities and you future place in society. Some people are pulled down by discrimination or bad luck. We justifiably don’t accept that people’s prospects in life are fully determined by their family, luck or discrimination.

Again, equality of opportunity is different from equality of outcome: most of us don’t think it’s a good idea to strive towards equality of outcome in most spheres of life. We’re quite happy to accept that some people earn less money, have less vacation time, have lower social status and recognition levels and have more uncomfortable, dangerous, or physically draining work etc. What we don’t accept is that those outcomes are predetermined by the family they happen to be born in, by discrimination they suffer or by other instances of bad luck.

Measuring Equality of Opportunity

People on opposite sides of political debates often agree on very little, but they do agree on the importance of equality of opportunity. There is almost universal agreement that people should have at least a starting position that guarantees an equal chance of success in whatever life projects one chooses, for those willing to invest an equal amount of effort. More specifically, equality of opportunity is often defined as an equal likelihood of success for all at age 18 (in order to factor in possible inequalities of opportunity determined by education).

Equality of opportunity is by definition an impossible goal. The lottery of birth means more than being unable to choose to be born in a wealthy family with caring parents who can finance your education and motivate you to achieve your goals. It also means that you can’t choose which talents and genes you are born with. Genetic differences are no more a matter of choice than the character and means of your parents. And genetic differences affect people’s talents, skills and maybe even their capacity to invest effort. So, as long as we can’t redistribute beneficial genes or disable harmful ones, and as long as we don’t want to intervene in people’s families and redistribute children, we can’t remove the impact of genes and parents.

However, we can do something. Equality of opportunity may be impossible but there is less or more inequality of opportunity. Or concern should be to provide as much equality of opportunity as possible, and to expand opportunity for those who are relatively less privileged. This means removing things that hold some people back (e.g. discrimination, unemployment, bad schools etc.), and – more positively – helping people to cultivate their capabilities and expand their choices.

How doe we measure if these interventions are successful? It seems very difficult to measure equality of opportunity. All we can do is measure some of the elements of opportunity:

  • We can measure unequal income and infer unequal opportunity from this. People with low income obviously have less opportunities than other people. However, not all opportunities can be bought and maybe low income isn’t the result of a disadvantaged upbringing or bad schools, but of bad choices, or even conscious choices. Can we say that a child of a millionaire who chose to be a hermit suffered from unequal opportunity? Don’t think so.
  • We can measure unequal education and skills (educational attainment or degrees, IQ tests etc.). However, someone who comes from a very privileged family but with low or alternative aspirations may score low on educational attainment or even IQ.
  • We can deduce unequal opportunity by the absence of opportunity enhancing government policies and legislation. The Civil Rights Act was self-evidently a boost for the opportunities of African-Americans.
  • We can measure social mobility and assume, correctly I think, that very low levels of mobility indicate inequality of opportunity.
  • Etc.

Whatever actions we take to enhance opportunity, it will probably always be relatively unclear what the net outcome will be on overall equality of opportunity. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything. And when we do something, we should also distinguish clearly between things we can do and things we can’t to, or things we feel are immoral (e.g. genetic redistribution or child redistribution). We know that parental attitudes, genetics, talent, appearance, networks and luck have a huge impact on individuals’ chances of success, but those are things we can’t do anything about, either because it’s impossible or because it’s immoral. But we can teach people skills and perseverance, to a certain extent. We can help the unlucky, for example with unemployment benefits. We can regulate firms’ employment policies so as to counteract the “old boys networks” or racism in employment decisions. We can impose an inheritance tax in order to limit the effects of the lottery of family. Etc etc.

Income Inequality (20): Social Mobility in Anglo-Saxon Economies

I know that talking about national or international economic models should be avoided because it’s highly simplistic, but I’ll do it anyway because I want to show that people who do sincerely talk about such models make some assumptions about them that are, in my view, incorrect. The Anglo-Saxon economic model, when compared to the mainland European model, is believed to focus more on individual responsibility than on social support. It imposes lower taxes and delivers a less developed social safety net. It’s more “liberal” (in the European sense of the word, meaning less social) and free market oriented. (Anglo-Saxon means English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States etc. but there are large differences between the UK and the US, the UK being less “Anglo-Saxon” than the US; and some mainland countries – like some Eastern European countries – are more “Anglo-Saxon” than they are “mainland”. This goes to show that we’re being simplistic; see also here).

The mainland model is often believed to be better at poverty reduction, job security, social services, and income equality. The Anglo-Saxon model on the other hand is said to be more flexible, less state dependent and more competitive (because of lower taxes and less labor regulation) and suffers less unemployment (because of the less generous social safety net; see also here).

For the same reasons, the Anglo-Saxon model is also believed to be less equal and more open to social mobility – social mobility being defined as the difference between the socioeconomic status of parents and the status their children will attain as adults. When the focus is on individual responsibility and when people can keep a larger share of their income after taxes, they are incited to do well, to work hard, to develop their talents, and to innovate. This not only creates a more competitive economy, but also one in which people can be socially mobile and rise in status and wealth. Countries that impose high taxes and offer generous safety nets don’t give the same incentives.

However, we see that the UK and the US aren’t characterized by relatively high levels of social mobility:

A father’s income determines his son’s to a greater extent in Britain than in any other wealthy nation, with half of a high earner’s “economic advantage” being transmitted to their children, a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has found. … In Britain … background determines a person’s success to a far higher degree than in almost any other rich country. “Education is not as important for social mobility in Britain as for other countries. Class, to be honest, is the most likely explanation,” said Romain Duval, head of division in the Paris-based OECD’s economics department. (source)

Something similar is the case for the US.

It appears that the United States has less intergenerational social mobility than many other industrialized countries. (source)

It’s true that the UK and the US (especially the US) are highly inegalitarian, and increasingly so, but high levels of income inequality do not necessarily go hand in hand with high levels of social mobility. In fact,

social mobility between generations tends to be lower in more unequal societies. (source)

So if you care about social mobility – and I think you should because high levels of social mobility indicate equality of opportunity, something no one objects to – then you should care about reducing inequality rather than promoting it through “Anglo-Saxon” tax and welfare systems (to the extent that there is something like it in the real world).

The Ethics of Human Rights (21): Social Mobility, Egalitarianism, Equality of Opportunity, and Meritocracy

In the best egalitarian society, people can change occupations, groups, associations etc. but their income, poverty level or social class will not change a lot as a result of this, since there’s not much difference between different income levels. This means that the society in question has decided that different occupations, talents and efforts should receive roughly the same financial reward. That may or may not be a good thing. Intuitively I would say that some occupations and some amounts of effort investment should receive higher financial rewards than others, in which case a somewhat inegalitarian society is what I want, notwithstanding my concerns about the problems created by inequality (see here for example). What I certainly don’t want is the worst egalitarian society, which combines the problem of equal rewards for morally diverse activities with the problem of fixed occupations and lack of social mobility, Soviet style.

In the worst inegalitarian society, there isn’t a lot of social mobility, social mobility in the sense of children ending up in adult life in a higher or lower level of income than the level of their parents.* There may be relatively many people changing occupations, but always within a limited class of occupations that yield roughly the same income levels. Such a lack of social mobility is an indication that income levels are not the result of merit, desert, reward, effort or talent, but rather the result of society’s choice not to equalize opportunities and to let people’s opportunities be determined by factors such as the family in which they happen to be born, unequal access to education etc. Genes do play a role in determining talent, and perhaps even willingness to invest effort, but only if genes were the sole force determining talent and effort could we claim that a lack of social mobility in an inegalitarian society is an inevitable characteristic of this society and not the consequence of a conscious choice of this society.

Since I don’t believe that genes have such a strong determining force, I have to conclude that the worst inegalitarian society chooses to limit social mobility and to accept (or even promote) unequal opportunities. Such a society in fact chooses to be a class society, a society that limits entry and exit into the various classes or income level groups and that forces parents and their adult children to share similar income levels (income levels are transmitted across generations).

The limited power of genes also allows me to conclude, positively now, that the best inegalitarian society can and should try to enact policies that promote social mobility. Such policies should remove obstacles that hinder people from using their talents and efforts in order to achieve a position in society that corresponds to a higher income level than the level their parents “enjoy”. These obstacles can be parental poverty, lack of access to quality education or to cultural resources, parental crime, peer pressure etc. In short, the best inegalitarian society should try to equalize opportunities. People with similar talents and willingness to develop and use these talents should have a roughly equal chance of ending up in a similar income level. If they don’t have such an equal chance, then it means that they don’t have the same opportunities and that certain obstacles hinder some of these people in the use and development of their talents. I can see no reason why the imposition of such obstacles on some people and not on others could ever be justified, but I’m open to suggestions.

Those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system. In all sectors of society there should be roughly equal prospects of culture and achievement for everyone similarly motivated and endowed. The expectations of those with the same abilities and aspirations should not be affected by their social class. Chances to acquire cultural knowledge and skills should not depend upon one’s class position, and so the school system, whether public or private, should be designed to even out class barriers. John Rawls (source)

If we assume that genes have a limited role in distributing talent, that the distribution of talent among people is therefore to some extent random and not determined by who their parents are; and if we further assume that the willingness to invest effort isn’t completely determined by parental influence or by genetics – and if, on top of that, opportunities are equalized (to some extent), then we should find a lack of correlation between the economic status of parents and their children. We should, in other words, find high levels of social mobility. If not, the influence of genes on talent and the influence of parents on the willingness to invest effort are more powerful than we think; or – more likely – the society hasn’t been successful in creating equality of opportunity (hasn’t provided equal access to quality education for instance). The levels of mobility are therefore a good indicator of the equality of opportunity in a society.

If the best inegalitarian society tries to equalize opportunities and is reasonably successful, then this doesn’t mean that it will necessarily become an egalitarian society. Equalizing opportunities doesn’t imply equalizing rewards for different activities, and neither does it mean that everyone will make equally successful use of the equal opportunities. There will be a lot of social mobility and a lack of correlation between the social position of parents and children, but the mobility can go up for some people and down for others, depending on the talents people have, the efforts they are willing to invest, and the rewards that society gives to particular talents, activities and efforts. Because of these different rewards, and because equal opportunities will be used unequally, there is no reason to expect a convergence of income levels. The best inegalitarian society will become a meritocracy, which produces, by definition, unequal income levels because it differentiates between deserving and less deserving activities, and between deserving and less deserving efforts within an activity.

This kind of society differs fundamentally from the worst inegalitarian society which is a class society and which therefore locks people in positions whatever their merits (class society can mean different things – caste society, nepotistic society etc. – but the effect is always the same). It also differs from the best egalitarian society which allows people to move between occupations but rewards all occupations equally and can’t therefore be called a meritocracy.

I mentioned before that a society can choose to be the best or the worst inegalitarian society. But how does it do that? “Society” is a vague concept. Who are the people actually making those choices? Well, it can be the politicians for instance. It’s quite clear that different policies have different effects on the equality of opportunities and on social mobility. Estate taxes or inheritance taxes play a huge role. Redistribution policies and policies aimed at education as well. But the processes leading towards and away from equality of opportunity can also be more below the surface:

It turns out that there’s a bit of a paradoxical relationship between believing your country has a lot of economic mobility and your country actually having a lot of economic mobility. If you believe that your country is extremely mobile, you’re likely to believe the results of the economic competition are relatively fair. As such, you won’t want to slap the rich with particularly high tax rates and you won’t be terribly concerned about spreading economic opportunity. After all, anyone can make it!

On the other hand, if you don’t believe your country is terribly mobile, then you’re less likely to believe economic outcomes are fair. And if you don’t believe the outcomes are fair, you’re likely to tax the winners relatively heavily and plow those profits into things like universal health care and free college. Policies, in other words, that spread opportunity more widely and thus make your society more mobile. Put like that, it sort of makes sense. If you believe your society is already economically mobile, you don’t spend a lot of time trying to solve the problem of insufficient economic mobility. if you don’t believe that, then you implement policies meant to increase mobility. Ezra Klein (source)

* “Basically social mobility refers to the likelihood that a child will grow up into adulthood and attain a higher level of economic and social wellbeing than his/her family of origin. Is there a correlation between the socioeconomic status (SES) of an adult and his/her family of origin? Do poor people tend to have poor parents? And do poor parents tend to have children who end up as poor adults later in life? Does low SES in the parents’ circumstances at a certain time in life – say, the age of 30 – serve to predict the SES of the child at the same age?” (source)

Income Inequality (18): No Such Thing – Good Thing – Necessary Evil – Gone Thing?

Attitudes towards income inequality in the U.S. differ widely.

  • There are those who deny that there is any, or better that there is enough to be worried about (see here for an example, or here).
  • Others say that it’s a good thing, and that there should be more of it. People are very different in their talents and work ethic, and rewarding the highly productive and creative ones for their efforts – which is only “fair” – automatically results in income inequality, because the unproductive and uncreative will not be rewarded, or less generously.
  • And then there are those who believe income inequality is a necessary evil. They don’t particularly like huge differences in rewards for activities which are, after all, often hardly comparable in any quantitive sense (is it so much more worthwhile to invest your efforts and creativity in the development of the iPhone than in the education of your children?). But they do believe that financial rewards stimulate productivity, and that higher rewards stimulate more. And increased productivity ultimately benefits us all, even those who are worse off and on the wrong side of the income inequality. (This is a version of “trickle down” economics).
  • Still others think that income inequality isn’t a problem any longer, given the effect of the recession on high earners.

Note: these 4 views aren’t necessarily incompatible. One and the same person can, as I see it, hold at least 3 of them at the same time. (E.g. you can believe that there isn’t much inequality, that what is left will soon be gone, and that you hope it will be back one day).

I think only the third view has some relation to the truth. Regarding the first view:

The basic conclusion of this data, that the nation [the U.S.] suffers from extreme and growing income inequality, is essentially irrefutable. Bruce Judson (source)

Regarding the second view: I object to it not because I don’t want to reward people or because I think justice has nothing to do with merit. On the contrary. I object to it because it assumes that different people and different activities can be placed on a single scale of merit and reward. It’s impossible to compare activities and say that one deserves a $10.000 per year reward (i.e. income) and another activity, compared to this first, is 10 times more deserving and hence deserves a $100.000 per year reward. Merit isn’t just a financial or quantitative thing, and hence it cannot – at least not exclusively – justify income inequality. Moreover, the income inequality that we see in the real world has little or nothing to do with merit. Most people aren’t paid according to any definition of merit. In the best case, they are paid because of their talents, which isn’t anything anyone deserves. In all other cases – and in the large majority of cases – people’s pay or income is determined by factors such as luck, family, networks, playing on the stock exchange etc., and none of these things are even marginally related to merit. In a society that rewards people for their creativity and productivity, you expect to see high levels of social mobility, and that’s precisely what you don’t see in the U.S.

Regarding the third view, I do believe that it is essentially correct, but it obfuscates many of the problems caused by income inequality. Hence, even if economic efficiency doesn’t justify efforts to limit income inequality, other things do.

The fourth view would seem to make sense intuitively. A lot of the income of the very wealthy comes from the stock markets, and the recession has pushed these markets down.

Professor Saez concludes that “the most likely outcome is that income concentration will fall in 2008 and 2009.” But, he follows this conclusion by stating that in the absence of significant policy actions such declines will be temporary: “Based on the US historical record, falls in income concentration due to recessions are temporary unless drastic policy changes, such as financial regulation or significantly more progressive taxation, are implemented and prevent income concentration from bouncing back. Such policy changes took place after the Great Depression during the New Deal and permanently reduced income concentration till the 1970s. In contrast, recent downturns, such as the 2001 recession, lead to only very temporary drops in income concentration.” Bruce Judson (source)

Moreover, the poor are also suffering as a result of the recession, not in the same absolute measures as the rich, but that is because they have less to lose in the first place. However, what they do lose as a result of the recession is for them relatively more important.

Recent data show that income inequality hasn’t actually decreased in 2008. Maybe in 2009… The recession only got started late in 2008.

Income Inequality (16b): Its Moral Significance

Will Wilkinson’s recent paper on income inequality argues that it’s an overrated problem (see also here). Before I deal with his arguments in detail, a quick reminder of my personal views on income inequality. From the point of view of human rights (which is my default starting point), the most urgent problem is not necessarily the unequal distribution of wealth or income, but the insufficient wealth and income of the poor in a given population. The urgent problem is absolute poverty, rather than relative poverty. Or, in other words, what we have to tackle first is some people’s inability to gather sufficient resources necessary to survive in a decent way, not the fact that some people have more resources than others. The human rights of people in a very poor but highly egalitarian society can be violated more extensively than the human rights of the relatively poor in a society that is very rich on average but highly inegalitarian. Eliminating or reducing income inequality – or “killing the rich” (metaphorically) as in the image above – doesn’t necessarily help the poor.

However, inequality can be a problem. The absence of poverty or the availability of sufficient resources for a decent human life is a human right, but it isn’t the only human right (some would even say that it isn’t a right at all, but I disagree, together with the drafters of the Universal Declaration). Human rights also include political human rights, and these political human rights usually mean the right to democratic participation in government and legislation. Income inequality makes these political rights highly problematic. Democracy is based on the equal influence of every citizen, but income inequality, by definition, gives the wealthier citizens more influence in politics.

In addition, income inequality may also lead to social fragmentation, with negative consequences for the cohesiveness of a society. We see that highly inegalitarian societies, such as the U.S., are also societies with relatively low levels of social mobility. One could argue that income inequality isn’t much of a problem when everyone has the same chance to be on the good side of the inequality. But when it is combined with social rigidity and stratification, it undermines meritocracy and equality of opportunity, which in turn enhances social fragmentation.

Finally, people in more egalitarian societies tend to be healthier, to live longer and to be happier (as Wilkinson should know).

These are serious issues from the point of view of human rights. If reducing income inequality (for example through progressive taxation, public spending – on welfare, education, healthcare etc. –  and regulation of political funding and lobbying) can go some way towards a solution, we should consider it.

One last point: all these issues are based on the assumption that income inequality is the outcome of just processes. In other words, we assume that people’s incomes are the result of their own desert and effort. If, on the other hand, we assume – more correctly in my view – that income and wealth distributions are affected by unjust processes (such as colonialism, slavery, discrimination, inheritance and a lack of social mobility etc.) than we have additional reasons to do something about income inequality. And these reasons have nothing to do with the negative consequences of inequality. They are, instead, related to its origins.

(If you want to know more about my views on income inequality, before I tackle Wilkinson’s views, you can read this old post).

Wilkinson claims that

income inequality is a dangerous distraction from the real problems: poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic injustice.

Those are real problems indeed, and even more urgent problems, as I’ve stated above. But income inequality is also a real problem, and I fail to see how one problem is necessarily a distraction from another problem. Human beings are perfectly capable of tackling several problems at the same time.

He also states that

there is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and rule by the rich.

That’s not true, as you can read here and here. Income inequality obviously doesn’t necessarily “destroy” democracy or replace it with “plutocracy”, but it significantly reduces its meaning, on both sides of the income gap: wealthy people use their wealth, their higher education, their networks etc. to gain influence, and poor people tend to participate less and thereby lose influence. While it’s true that wealthy people can use their political influence for the benefit of their poor fellow-citizens, it’s still a fact that many don’t. If we cherish democracy, we should implement policies that limit the risk of selfish interventions by disproportionately influential individuals or groups, as well as policies that encourage participation of relatively less influential individuals and groups. It’s not sufficient, as Wilkinson does, to point to the fact that many wealthy people voted for Obama, knowing that he would raise their taxes.

Wilkinson also believes that the level of American income inequality was not caused by exploitative, institutional mechanisms. Given the historical inheritance of slavery and discrimination, I think this opinion is false. This inheritance, combined with astonishingly high levels of correlation between parental income and the income of children, does suggest that there are institutional mechanisms which perpetuate income inequality. While it’s wrong to claim that the inheritance of racism and slavery is to blame for the poverty of African-Americans living today, it’s very likely that it has some effect.

Few people argue for a completely egalitarian society. I certainly don’t. Some inequalities are perfectly just, and probably necessary from the point of view of economic efficiency. But there are many who argue for the opposite: don’t do anything about inequality. While I don’t believe Wilkinson is one of them, his statement that “income inequality is a dangerous distraction” encourages those who believe that we shouldn’t care about inequality.

Income Inequality (13): Social Mobility in the U.S. and Britain

America and Britain … have the highest intergenerational correlations between the social status of fathers and sons; the lowest are found in egalitarian Norway and Denmark. Things are even worse for ethnic minorities; a black American born in the bottom quintile of the population (by income) has a 42% chance of staying there as an adult, compared with 17% for a white person. The Economist (source)

If equality of opportunity is important – and I think it is – then it’s unacceptable that people’s income is to a large extent determined by the income of their parents or by their race. Equality of opportunity means that individuals who grow up in poor families can use their talent and effort to become wealthy, and that individuals who have wealthy parents end up with relatively meager incomes because of their lack of talent and/or effort.

Now, a lack of social mobility isn’t such a big problem in very egalitarian societies with high average incomes, because (almost) everyone already has a decent and more or less equal income, something which cancels out or softens the injustice of seeing your income level determined by that of your parents. But, of course, Britain and the U.S. are not egalitarian. On the contrary, among developed countries they are among the least egalitarian with income inequality far beyond the average.

So, what to do about it? If we do nothing, then we may as well say out loud that we are a society based on injustice, a society in which one’s fate is determined by the lottery of birth, by the good luck or bad luck of being born into a certain  family. Maybe a “death tax” could help.