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Questions for Those Who Obsess Over Income Differences

In my latest column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I pose some questions to those people who obsess over differences across individuals or households in incomes. A slice:

• What, exactly, counts as income? Only what workers receive as take-home pay? Or does it include also the value of fringe benefits? What about the value to workers of above-average workplace conditions? Is a worker treated unfairly by society if she chooses a lower-paying job under a pleasant boss rather than a higher-paying job under an unpleasant boss?

• If — as is true — there is some positive relationship between how much a worker produces and that worker’s pay, at what level does workaholic Smith’s higher income become unacceptably high compared to leisure-loving Jones’ lower income?

• Consider two societies, Evenia and Producia. In Evenia, all incomes are the same but everyone is poor, and the economy never grows. In Producia, incomes are enormously unequal but everyone, including the poorest, is richer than anyone in Evenia, and the economy of Producia grows. In which would you prefer to live? In which would you prefer your children to live?

• If you prefer Producia to Evenia — and if forced redistribution of income through taxation slows economic growth — what amount of growth are you willing to sacrifice in Producia in exchange for greater income equality there? And if the amount of growth your neighbor is willing to sacrifice for greater income equality is less than the amount you’re willing to sacrifice, is your neighbor thereby immoral? Poorly informed? Irrational?

• Do you not worry that your constant bemoaning of income inequality fuels envy?

Never in my life, even before I was exposed to economics, did I worry about income or wealth ‘inequality.’  And whenever I encounter complaints about income or wealth inequality I confess to being completely put off by those who so complain.  Such complaints come across to me as evidence of childishness, ignorance, and incivility.  I’m as put off by those who do such complaining as I would be by encountering a man who publicly complains that his neighbor’s daughter got accepted into a college more prestigious than the one his own daughter attends, or who publicly bemoans the fact that his co-worker’s wife is prettier than his own.  Civilized people just do not behave so immaturely and rudely.