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The Increasing Invisibility of Income Inequality

Take a thoughtful libertarian and a thoughtful left-liberal for a latte, listen to them converse, and you’ll find agreement on a surprisingly wide range of issues. One issue, though, that will almost certainly not be agreed upon is the significance of income inequality. The left-liberal’s deep concern about this issue, and the libertarian’s (and conservative’s) relative unconcern about this issue is striking.

This issue is too big to grapple with fully over a leisurely latte (or in a blog post). But I here suggest that economic growth, even as it might generate ever-larger income inequality, increasingly renders these same differences in money income or wealth less and less relevant as a measure of differences in quality of life. Some examples:

– Inexpensive consumer electronics enable almost all Americans, even the poorest, to listen at their leisure to the world’s finest orchestras perform great music; contrast now with, say, 1880, when only the relatively rich could afford to hear great music – and only the superrich (by hiring their own chamber orchestras) could enjoy listening to such music whenever they wished.

– Today’s inexpensive Chevrolets and Kias are more reliable and better equipped than were top of the line Cadillacs of 40 years ago.

– Fifty years ago European vacations were a luxury enjoyed mostly by the rich and upper middle classes; today – chiefly because of inexpensive air travel – such vacations are within the means of a much greater proportion of the population.

– The clothing worn by wealthy Americans is virtually indistinguishable from the clothing of ordinary Americans; Bill Gates, Tom Hanks, and Laura Bush are not distinguished from the vast majority of Americans by their clothing. In both quality and quantity, clothing is nearly super-abundant in modern western society.

The further back you go in history, the greater were the material differences that separated rich from poor. Many of these distinctions were evident to the untrained eye (for example, the rich rode in carriages; the poor walked). Fewer of the distinctions today between rich Americans and middle-class Americans – even poor Americans – are as palpable, as salient, as stark, as were the distinctions of generations past.

Bill Gates has many more zeroes in the accounts of his finances than I have in the accounts of my finances. But I don’t see these; no one sees these. What is seen, what is experienced, what is palpable, as differences between Gates’s financial status and that of ordinary Americans is increasingly disappearing.