Mean-ing

by Don Boudreaux on February 10, 2012

in Curious Task, Data, Hubris and humility, Inequality

Here’s a comment submitted to Paul Krugman’s blog, in response to this post of his:

You boast that you would be even more “mean” than the admittedly mean Jonathan Chait when ridiculing those with whom you disagree.  You justify your self-license to be mean by asserting that nearly everyone who publicly stakes out positions contrary to your (and Chait’s) “Progressive” positions ‘deliberately’ “keeps putting out the old discredited arguments, again and again.”

The lead example of an allegedly discredited argument that you report as being offered by the “hacks” who disagree with you is that (in your words) “Inequality hasn’t really increased, despite the IRS data.”

First, you ignore important questions regarding the weight that income inequality should have relative to other forms of inequality – such as inequality of treatment before the law, inequality of consumption opportunities, inequality of leisure time, inequality of risk-taking, and inequality of work-effort.  And you take for granted that income inequality is indeed not only unambiguously a problem, but a problem whose correction unambiguously justifies granting more power to the state.

Perhaps you’re correct.  But questions asked to challenge your perspective on the meaning of, on the sources of, on the extent of, and on the policy significance of inequality are hardly as trite and contemptible as you presume them to be.

Second, you must be aware that the data on this issue are not so clear and unequivocal as to justify outright meanness and contempt toward those who disagree with your interpretation that income inequality is increasing so much as to warrant the concern that you give to it.

You mention data from the IRS.  Fine.  But what about recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau?*  These data show, for example, that the average household in the top income quintile in 2010 housed 4.25 more people than did the average household in the bottom income quintile.  These data also show that the overwhelming bulk of top-quintile households are headed by married couples while the overwhelming bulk of bottom-quintile households are headed by single adults.  And they show that three-quarters of top-income households are headed by people in their prime earning years while only 44 percent of bottom-income households are so headed.

Do these facts (and others too numerous to list here) – especially in light of changing demographics such as increased immigration of low-skilled workers and higher divorce rates – not cause you to pause before accusing those who disagree with you of being “hacks” who (you assert) argue in bad faith and, hence, deserve only your vitriol?
……
* (From Mark Perry’s Carpe Diem blog, 22 October 2011)

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