The Upside of Inequality and Why We Should Want Even More of It



Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to

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179 Responses

  1. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    *GOOD POST!*Report

  2. Beautiful piece, Jaybird. I wonder if there isn’t some related element of everyone wanting to be a part of this progress though and increasingly being given fewer and fewer opportunities to participate in progress that allows expectations to outpace reality.Report

    • As strong as JB’s post is, I think this is an important question that needed to be appended to it. I don’t have any answers (or, at most, a few flawed ones), but it’s something that has to be considered.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Sorry! I honestly meant to come back to this.

        I wonder if there isn’t some related element of everyone wanting to be a part of this progress though and increasingly being given fewer and fewer opportunities to participate in progress that allows expectations to outpace reality.

        I think a very important question to ask is one like “would you rather be (a member of a minority, pick one!) today or (a member of a minority, pick one!) in (pick a year in the past)?”

        My answer is “today”. Without hesitation.

        I see that as an indicator.Report

  3. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Very, very strong piece. But I think a big question remains:

    While growing inequality might be A result of positive gains that benefit all, it is a necessary result? Why couldn’t we make these gains without exacerbating inequality?Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      A result of positive gains that benefit all, it is a necessary result?

      To use a silly example that I brought up in another thread, a handful of years back, I read about a 100″ HDTV that had the pricetag of $100,000. Today, Costco has an 80″ television for less than $5,000.

      In another 5 years, I’m sure we’ll finally see that 100″ television at Costco for under 10 thousand.

      That’s, what? 10 years from only being available to the Bill Gateses to being something that you could get instead of a 2nd car? (And you wouldn’t believe how much the price of the 65″, 52″, and 40″ televisions have gone down in that same period.)

      Which brings me to this point: MRI machines used to be the same way.

      It’s the creation of the MRI machine that makes people say “I don’t want an X-ray, I want an MRI” in the first place. It’s only the passage of time that gets folks to dismiss the easy availability of MRIs and has them start saying that sure, while MRIs might be available for cheap, it’s not like it’s this, or that, or the other thing that has since moved from proof of concept to prototype to production.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        And the fancy pants monitor that I bought five years ago, for under $1000? the next best equivalent is now $3,000 or so.

        Yay, progress. What, I’m supposed to cheer because we’re now using worse technology than before??Report

      • Avatar Roger says:


        Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias had this to say on the topic…

        “This is a problem because it is very hard to imagine a Cambrian explosion level of diversity among our descendants without a lot more inequality. For plants or animals today, pick most any dimension along which you want to call some “better” than others, and you’ll find a wide variation — some are a lot better than others. Pretty much the only dimension in which all existing species are near “equal” is survival – all have survived. But of course they are a tiny fraction of winners vastly outnumbered by all the dead loser species.

        Thus our descendants are likely to differ from one another on most all imaginable dimensions, including dimensions of value, where some are called “better”. The only ways to prevent that is to destroy all descendants, or for a central power to seize control of this process and impose a concept of equality favored by those who control it. And if you supported an attempt to seize central control on this basis, you’d risk folks with other agendas seizing control of this central power base.

        While that might make sense someday, when we have learned better ways to coordinate, for now I think we have to accept that the future will come with both great diversity and great inequality – and that we can’t really have much diversity without a lot of inequality as well.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          Inequality has led to loss of diversity. Homosexuality has been inbred into Western culture (to a much more significant degree than most will acknowledge, particularly the right). A significant loss of libido in general has been bred into Asian cultures.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            What. The. Fish?Report

            • Avatar Kimmi says:

              Seriously, can you see an asexual couple in America? Let alone it becoming a fad?
              America’s the place where people throw unholy fits about “gay couples ruining My Marriage” — doesn’t happen in Asia, mostly.

              Different solutions for the same problem: societies that did not regulate babies died out shortly thereafter.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                Seriously, can you see an asexual couple in America? Let alone it becoming a fad?

                There are plenty of asexuals in America. Dan Savage wrote quite a bit about them a few months ago, if I recall correctly.

                The key variable here is “becoming a fad.” Things get conceptualized as fads when they come out of Japan. It’s a bias of ours to view them that way.

                As to homosexuality becoming “inbred,” I have no clue what this might even mean. Are you saying that homosexuals reproduce a lot with each other, so they pass on the gay gene?

                If so, [Citation needed].Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I guess what I fail to understand (and this is aimed somewhat at Roger as well) is why inequality is NECESSARY. I fully grasp the proposition put forward here by Jaybird.

        How would making new advances immediately available to everyone cheaply be a bad thing? How would that harm advancement? Mind you, I’m not talking about doing this through legislation. I am increasingly uncomfortable with using legislation to address inequality. But I think society as a whole would be better if folks thought more collectively and were willing to forgo their own excesses to help their fellow man.

        What most bothers me about some things remaining exclusive is that this is often just as artificial as making them widely available. Some folks get off on knowing they are able to partake in an experience that is not available to others. And thus go out of their way to ensure that the experience remains as exclusive as possible, even if “market forces” or whatever might dictate otherwise. These people tend to be douches. And I fear we are continually accepting douchiness as the norm.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          Oh, inequality as people are talking about it isn’t necessary. Fame is a great substitute for fortune, in this world.
          Because this ain’t some liberal paradise, and people don’t strive to get rich for money’s sake. They strive to get rich in order to get gurlz.
          “Strive to get rich” — I should just say “invent cool stuff” and get it over with.

          Polio vaccine got around to everyone, at least in America, in relatively short order.

          Many people have douchiness as the wanted and desired outcome. We often call those people republicans, but they’re the people who want “exclusive” school districts for their little precious snowflake. Not with any “ghetto” kids. They don’t want to pay taxes for someoen else’s little precious snowflake to do well. (this is starting to get into a huge bitchfest on using real estate taxes to run school districts.)Report

          • Avatar Pyre says:

            Before you interject politics into this, it should be pointed out that not only do Democrats put their kids into private schools but they also oppose vouchers which would allow the “ghetto kids” you speak of to escape from schools that are failing them.

            In terms of educating our children, Democrats have as much as Republicans if not more to answer for.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP says:

              That’s simply not true. Voting patterns reveal Democratic majorities in highly urbanized settings such as the City of Chicago. The surrounding suburbs, wealthy Dupage County for instance, is heavily Republican. Even there, people send their children to public schools, some of the best in the nation. Of course, they also have high enough property taxes to support them.

              The vast majority of Democrats do put their children in public schools, often very bad ones. Such as these can’t afford private schools.

              If it is true some Democrats put their children in private schools, the best schools in Illinois are run by the Chicago Public Schools. And they’re supported by good solid Republican tax payers.Report

              • Avatar Pyre says:

                “If it is true some Democrats put their children in private schools,”

                The rich ones and the lawmakers.

                I had a paragraph here about what irritates me about the DNC and education policy. However, I made my initial statement because Kimmi’s statement about “republicans” struck me as the sort of political tribalism that should be avoided in these inequality topics. Justifying what was admittedly a poorly explained counterpoint would take us further down that road.

                I apologize for not making the intent of my original post clear. If there were an edit function, I would rewrite the ending to say:

                Both parties have much to answer for in terms of educational inequality but political tribalism is not helpful in discussing the issue of inequality.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi says:

                sorry, my sardonicness appears to have been lost over the internet.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                That’s understandable, Pyre. The only sensible approach to public education is to treat it as we do our military, (though both suffer from the same stupid thinking!) — as an investment in our future well-being and security. As such, we should demand more than accountability. Demonising teachers is not one whit more useful than damning our military leadership. In point of fact, we can’t put people in uniform to run a million dollar weapons system if they can’t read the manual: if we had the good sense to see the congruence, the idiocy of the current partisan debate would slough off and we’d have an educational system which would again be the envy of the world.Report

        • Avatar Roger says:


          As I read Hanson, he is saying that as we gain in dimensions of complexity and value, we also tend to see increases in inequality within the various dimensions. I am not sure if he is right.

          Let’s explore a few dimensions though. At the low end, we can die at birth. With medical advances, the range of inequality increases. Some still die at day one, others increasingly make it to 90 or 100 years.

          At the low end, a person can make zero per year. As the high end increases, the upper end is hypothetically unlimited.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            Well, yes. But are we really talking about the size of the spread from absolute bottom to absolute top? That is not my focus, at least.

            But let’s use your example of death. Some die at day one. Others die at day 36,500 (100 years). Suppose there was a day to ensure no one died on day one. We’ve now reduced the spread from 36,500 to 36,499. We’ve reduced inequality. Isn’t this a GOOD thing? If this can be done through non-coercive means, why wouldn’t we strive to?Report

            • Avatar Roger says:

              I am not arguing for early death or zero income. Nor do I see most forms of inequality as good, and I do see many as bad.

              That said, some good things can lead to bad statistical artifacts. In general more wealth is good if channeled into positive sum pursuits. But this can lead to increases in absolute inequality, which may be bad in and of itself.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that you were a champion of day one deaths. If I did, I apologize.

                If certain advances necessitate increasing inequality, so be it. But if the advances can be achieved without exacerbating inequality, isn’t that preferred? I mean, read the title of the post… we should want MORE inequality? Really? Perhaps that was hyperbole, but that is a bit troubling. While I’m on board with wanting more of that which is often a cause for inequality and accepting greater inequality as a necessary evil at times, wanting inequality itself is sort of a strange way to look at it, no?Report

              • Avatar Roger says:


                No worries, I did not mean to imply you did. To be honest there is something unsettling in the title and the concept. In other words, you last sentence resonates with me….

                Perhaps Jaybird can straighten us out.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I was being deliberately provocative.Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                You rascal, you!

                Would love you to weigh in on the broader conversation here between Roger and I, though I know you’ve got your hands full with a powerful, appropriately provocative post!Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Is there a particular question you’d like answered? I read the conversation and think “they’re both doing great!” rather than “I need to jump in!”Report

      • Avatar NoPublic says:

        Which brings me to this point: MRI machines used to be the same way.

        It’s the creation of the MRI machine that makes people say “I don’t want an X-ray, I want an MRI” in the first place. It’s only the passage of time that gets folks to dismiss the easy availability of MRIs and has them start saying that sure, while MRIs might be available for cheap, it’s not like it’s this, or that, or the other thing that has since moved from proof of concept to prototype to production.

        NMRs (MRIs these days) were ludicrously expensive (and are still pretty darn spendy). The reason they were ever used was that they were a) Diagnostically superior and b) Didn’t involve ionizing radiation. It’s not like someone slapped “3D 480Hz” on an XRay machine and up-sold it to you. It’s completely different from consumer products and how they’re bought and sold (and how the expectations change on them). Conflating the two is silly.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Conflating the two is silly.

          I posit that the conflation is done on the part of the people who argue that these things ought to be provided to everybody by the government… and, yes, that conflating the two things is, in fact, silly.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            When you say, “People who argue that these things ought to be provided to everybody by the government,” do you mean folks who believe in universal insurance/single payer/public option/etc?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              One of the arguments that I see come up a lot in the socialized medicine debate is how it’s not fair that the rich have a different level of health care than is available to the poor… the argument usually takes the form of “should a child die because her parents can’t afford treatment X?”Report

              • Avatar Kazzy says:

                My gut sense is that whatever inequality that does exist within health care should be a matter of quality and not necessary quantity. What I mean by this is that folks should have access to all the same types of care, but that there will be inequality within the quality available within each type. Of course, I won’t pretend to be able to answer how we identify differences as differences of quantity versus differences of quality. 🙂Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Seems to me, if we want a solution to the health care crisis, we might start by asking the doctors and nurses and hospitals and that sort of person how we might go about improving it.

                Here’s how we could sort it out, statistically. This much I know about the problem definition:

                Heath care comes down to three components: speed, diagnosis and outcomes. Speed’s most important: it’s most obvious in emergency medicine but it’s equally important with small stuff. Get in there while the problem is small, the treatment is usually trivial. Delays make the problem worse. Diagnosis, because sometimes it really is zebras and not horses, a competent doctor can elevate a communicable disease crisis to the appropriate level. Outcomes: trust the physicians to do the right thing, the right way, and let’s shoot every politician trying to tell them how to do their fucking jobs and interfering in the doctor patient relationship and it’s a huge problem.

                Believe me, if doctors ran the health care show and not all these political maniacs, muddling and fuddling and pissing in the water tank, everyone would get great health care.Report

          • Avatar NoPublic says:

            I don’t have to posit (it’s right there in the text) that you’re conflating the rise in expectations about consumer electronics and medical imaging devices. And that’s stupid, since they have different drivers, different cost-benefit curves, and different impacts on society. Oh, and in your posit you imply that someone is saying that everyone should be provided HDTVs for free by the government (A position I’m unable to find any concrete example of, unsurprisingly). Your whole conceit is flawed.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              And that’s stupid, since they have different drivers, different cost-benefit curves, and different impacts on society.

              I agree with this sentence.

              But I also still hold that people have the similar expectations for health care that they have for consumer electronics… though there is one major difference.

              No one would argue that they should get a 100″ television without paying for it because they need a 100″ television… but you will see that argument given for drugs that cost tens of thousands of dollars a year.

              So there is *THAT* significant difference. I don’t know if that helps your point or mine, though.Report

  4. Avatar greginak says:

    This is a good post, i agree with a lot of it. I’d say that you are trying a bit to hard to prove your point. The advancements we have made to live longer and healthier are fantastic; we are, indeed, lucky. But i think you are being dismissive to some real concrete problems by just posing all the dissatisfaction as faulty expectations or envy. If you have aged parents who will take care of them as they age is a real issue, that they can live longer is wonderful, but how to care for Alzheimers or other chronic disorders is not just being sort of whiny and unappreciative. If you have a pre-existing medical condition your ability to get insurance, and therefore access to the wondrous care available, is up in the air. There are millions of people who don’t get to share in the great care i know people in my family have had.

    Like i said i think this is a good post with some real wisdom. I hope people don’t get lost on the parts where you , imho, go a bit overboard or miss some tangible problems. Oh, i think if you have a lot of inequality you are almost certainly going to have poverty since most of the gains are going to a very few instead of spread around to most people.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      In the same way that everyone should know that the left isn’t talking about Harrison Bergeron when they talk about inequality being bad, I’d like to think that we should all know that libertarians aren’t talking about 2 Samuel 12:1-4 when they think about inequality either.Report

  5. Avatar James Hanley says:

    Great post, Jaybird. I boggle that so many people dismiss this argument out of hand.

    Now, to address what seems to me to be one of the stronger arguments against growing inequality, the argument that people don’t *FEEL* as secure as they did back in the 1950?s.

    I’ve yet to see anyone making this claim produce reliable evidence of what people felt in the ’50s. Anecdotally, I know my dad didn’t feel economically secure in the ’50s, and he was a WWII vet with a B.A. in business from a flagship state university. Growing up as a kid (born mid ’60s), I know we never felt very secure. It wasn’t until the last ten years or so of their working lives that my parents reached a position of decent economic/financial security.

    I’m just not persuaded that their situation was all that unusual.

    And of course nobody seems to bother to ask who it was in the ’50s that might have felt secure. It always sounds like a specifically white suburban feeling to me.Report

    • Avatar Plinko says:

      Pretty much exactly this.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        I am open to real evidence, though, if any exists. Unfortunately we hadn’t yet reached the era of ubiquitous surveys, so there probably isn’t much of what we would consider reliable data.Report

        • I think the claim about the 1950s is more about nostalgia and about the fact that we know, in retrospect, that 1) a nuclear war didn’t happen, 2) the economy would not suffer a major recession until the 1970s, and 3) Vietnam hadn’t happened yet.

          Of course, this post-hoc nostalgia usually doesn’t mention the fact that many people, like your father, were economically insecure for much of the decade, that many states actively mandated racial segregation, and that in the first 3 years or so of the decade, the US was at war.

          My father, who was born in 1932, didn’t seem to describe the 1950s one way or another. My understanding is that he had a full time job at one of the railroads that serviced Denver (he was an electrician). However, I know that at some time, he was laid off (I’m not sure when, maybe in the early 1960s….he was employed long enough to enjoy RR retirement benefits when he got older), and I had heard him mention that he didn’t know how he was going to support the family.

          My point is, my anecdote corroborates your anecdote in some particulars, even though I think we were more fortunate, in a material sense, than your family appears to have been. My comparative assessment may be skewed by the fact that I didn’t come along until the early 1970s, and by that time, life for my parents was probably not, economically speaking, as much of a struggle as before.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          This was the era of “white giveaways” — FHA loans allowing people to buy only somewhat substandard housing.Report

    • Avatar greginak says:

      Children of the Depression, like my parents, never described the 50’s as some wonderful secure time. My dad felt glad to be alive after surviving 3 years of combat in ww2 but other then that it just a decade.Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

      Well, the same people who usually make this “inequality is progress!” argument are usually also the ones telling us that the rich can’t buy all that much better stuff now with money. (Like the whole “Steve Jobs has the same iPhone you have” argument)

      There’s a lot of contradictions on both sides of the argument.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I’m not arguing that “inequality is progress”.

        I’m arguing that progress creates inequality.Report

        • Avatar Glyph says:

          So, we all get on the bus, and head uphill…but we complain that the people in the front-seats get there first? 😉

          Kidding aside, I agree with you. I completely realize that this particular metaphor I used above may cause way more trouble than it is worth, and have been trying to come up with one less likely to provoke, but came up short.

          So I will instead stick with it, and concede that most of those most worried about inequality really are worried for the most part about those that did not make it onto the bus at all, or fell out the open back door when it started moving. Or heck, maybe the A/C doesn’t reach all the way back to the back, and for god’s sake we’ve got somebody dying of heatstroke back here – these are valid concerns; poverty should concern us. But not necessarily just inequality per se.

          Now, the people in the front seats may have gotten there by pure chance, or family connections, or maybe they really deserve it – they got up early and got to the station at sunrise, while I was still sleeping in. As long as the seating arrangement was not dictated by law (and here I can I mean actual codified legislation, or informal custom/caste system type stuff), well – I just kind of have to live with my general seat, though I am free to engage in non-coercive transactions to try to trade up (for whatever value I see as ‘up’). Maybe I prefer the window and you want the aisle.

          But if I am on the bus, and moving forward, and getting some A/C, then in the absence of actual legal oppression, it seems churlish to complain ‘but those guys up front have a better view than I do.’ And to use force of law to try to change that? Even more silly.

          FWIW, I’d say I’m somewhere in the middle 1/3 section.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            As metaphors go, it makes me smile and you can come up with all sorts of additional clarifications… some sit in the bus on the seats, some sit on the roof, some hang on the windows outside, from there you can talk about types of terrain… there’s an accordion effect so the front of the bus can pull away faster from the folks in the back… and, as you move forward, things keep getting exponentially better so that it’s so much easier to keep thinking about going forward rather than being pleased with where you are because, let’s face it, you ain’t gonna look behind you.

            Yeah, we can run with that.Report

            • Avatar Glyph says:

              Upon reflection, I probably should have gone with ‘train’ (more European anyway) when I was looking for an elongated mode of public transport, since front/back of bus have understandably unfortunate connotations for US readers at least. Oh well.

              Where it really goes off the rails (see what I did there?) is when we consider who’s driving. When there’s an (R) in the driver’s seat, some worry that he’s kicking the poor off the bus so he can pick up more rich people, who can pay more for the seats. When there’s a (D) in the driver’s seat, some worry that he’s taking on so many passengers for free that we’ll get too heavy to keep moving uphill, or won’t be able to afford the gas for the bus.

              The scary/exhilarating part is, no one is actually driving, and we all are.Report

        • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

          But does it really? The average industrialized nation’s person is more equal from one another in terms of basic life staples than they were at any time in history.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          Progress creates new inequalities as it removes old ones. Most of the stuff that was neat, new, and unaffordable fifty years ago is either gone or much cheaper now. And that’s not a coincidence: the same forces that invented it in the first place invent ways to make more of it with fewer resources. That’s why, at a gross level, inequality stays more or less constant. The poor are always with us, but they don’t stay at the same level of destitution as we get our flying cars and robutlers.

          If you see that inequality is getting bigger, that is, that the forces of progress that should be equalizing things aren’t doing so, something’s wrong.Report

          • Avatar Kimmi says:

            the poor grow more destitute, as all the things around us grow into their planned obselescence.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            I’m not sure the income spectrum remains more or less constant. That might depend on your sample, especially the sample location. It’s not the same in Egypt or India as it is might be in the USA. Progress affects some more than others.

            People are being left behind. If something’s wrong, how would we correct it? This isn’t a matter of televisions costing less. The human digestive system hasn’t evolved to run on less protein or consume less potable water.

            Here’s what’s changed over time: human suffering has become compartmentalised, its effects concentrated. For all our instant news services, the famine in Niger continues and gets worse. Even if it were true that the gross numbers remained relatively constant, the lowest level of destitution, starvation, remains a problem in the world. Those poor have actually gone down in terms of their level of destitution.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            I’d say that the level of technological advancement of the last 100 years is unprecedented. Like, INSANELY unprecedented.

            We’ve gone from horseback to the moon to the internet.

            When Thomas Jefferson made his improvements on plow angles, how long did it take them to get from Virginia to Pennsylvania or Georgia? Let alone back to France?Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      I can throw you some stats from Harlem about “security” and what it feels like to lose it in the 1970’s, to find that you are extraordinarily ill equipped for a changing world.Report

  6. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Well, you sort of jumped from 1889 to the 1950s there when you talked about people’s sense of security, but one difference now, as I understand it, is that American families have considerably more debt than they did back then (1950s). One reason is probably because a lot more kids go to college now than did back then, although tuition is also a hell of a lot more expensive now than it was then and it’s hard to think of the leaps and bounds in knowledge that we could say have made the quality of a college education advance in ways that are comparable to the huge progress that’s been made in the price tag.Report

    • Avatar mark boggs says:

      This is really tangential to JB’s post, but you bring up an important point about debt. To what extent has credit given people the opportunity to acquire things that they couldn’t get in a cash only environment, but also how much has that ability hamstrung them under mountains of debt to which they are prisoners.

      I was flabbergasted the other day playing golf with an 80 year old man who paid $14,000 dollars for his house…in cash.Report

      • Avatar mark boggs says:

        In other words, credit has given people with fewer means the ability to have the kinds of things the better off can have but at the same time has brought about their increased level of uncertainty and insecurity by accumulating massive levels of debt.Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

          Better to deny the poor credit then, eh? It’s the righteous thing to do.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            Well, I don’t think that’s what he’s saying, Tom. A person can describe a situation, or provide their description of a situation, and point out some inherent problems without that criticism being a reductio on the premise.

            But I agree with you’re more general point (if I understand it right). The availability of credit has improved the lives of lots of middle and lower middle income people, and it’s overuse isn’t an indictment of their access to credit. I think there are some worries about how credit card companies in particular impose penalties and arbitrary fees that are problematic, but that’s a different issue.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            In some cases, it’s better not to extend credit to the poor, beyond their ability to repay. Yes, absolutely. Many societies suffer from debt slavery. Mao Zedong used to preach a little sermon from the back of his truck. He’d let down the gate, set up his pulpit. And this is what he would say:

            “People of China. You are poor and you are stupid. You are poor because you are stupid. You have been enslaved by debt, most of you for many generations. Who owns your land? Not you. Kill the loan shark and the landlord and you shall be free.”

            And of course, the people would burn down the loan shark’s house and Mao would drive on to the next town, where he’d give the same sermon.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          the increased level of stress and insecurity is often just caused by being a forced dual income family (or even worse, in a culture that nearly dempands dual incomes, not having a significant other)Report

  7. Avatar Rtod says:

    A fine and lovely post. If I had one quibble, it would be minor (and would not detract from your message). I am not sure that everyone was content and happy in the 50s, in the same way I don’t think people are unhappy today. I think the 50s was just a time when it was fashionable to make pop art and media in a sachriney way, in the same way it’s fashionable to make pop art and media that shows conflict and negative emotions. We now look back at all that popular culture and think, my goodness, look how happy and uncomplicated those people were! I think that this is a bit of a illusion. People, I think, were and continue to be people.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      I originally had a paragraph in there about how the argument that people felt more secure in the 1950’s and the 1960’s made me want to ask “which people?”… because I’m pretty sure that there are little rose-colored glasses with blinders being worn when that argument is being made.

      It struck me as a hair confrontational for the tone I was going for, though, so I took it out.Report

  8. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    I’m not quite sure this is really true.

    The most substantial technological progress of our lifetimes has been primarily things that REDUCED inequality. Put power back into the little people. The printers and personal computers that made every person a printing press. The internet that made little individuals typing on laptops their own copy editor. The cell phone that’s given modern telecommunications access to the rural poor in Africa. Manufacturing techniques and supply chain enhancements that make consumption more accessible to the multitudes.

    The democratization of technology is the most fundamental advance in the last 40 years. I don’t think we should be craving for a world where we reverse those gains and demand that progress come at the cost of power inequality.Report

      • Avatar Citizen says:

        My grandmother has used one piece flow and small batch production in her kitchen long before the idea ever reached a manufacturing floor. In some sense the depression era impacted her with efficiency.
        On the reverse side of the coin, several family members tended to gather and hold on to things. For some reason possession of 300 empty plastic butter bowls and 100 empty milk jugs are a dire neccesity.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          I keep ten empty milk jugs, but I just wish the city would announce before they flush the system (turning the water all rusty red).
          Ten’s enough incase we get some notice before we lose water.
          It’s also enough to let the sediment settle, before I use my water filter.

          Too many is probably a sign of neurosis.Report

        • Avatar Rod says:

          OMG! My wife’s grandmother used to hoard the weirdest stuff. Like those strips that come off the sides of fan-fold computer paper? We found some in a bag in her closet and asked her why she had them. Her reply? “Because you never know when you might need some holes.”Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      I remember when not everybody had a personal computer.

      Heck, I remember when not everybody could afford one.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      If technology has served as a leveller, it has also become a tool of inequality and despotism. We hope the widespread adoption of modern telco and Internet service will serve as a democratising influence but even in the Land of the Free, we have only seen the erosion of our privacy and secret courts to administer the tools of tyranny.Report

  9. Avatar Creon Critic says:


    I don’t mean to reframe the whole discussion because there’s quite a bit to disagree with just here, but I think there are echoes of previous discussions of economic and social rights I have had with you. I think I have another way of expressing why I fundamentally disagree with this view. I see the perspective outlined in this post as freezing certain human needs in time and not accommodating changing circumstances where people (by my lights) rightly demand more in view of technological advance and innovation. So in short expectations rightly change in my view.

    So take literacy for instance. At one point in time there was no written language. Then some bright person comes along and decides writing systems and clay tablets are the way to go. At some point only royal courts can have access to written materials – literacy is pricey and very few people have access to it. Gutenberg comes along and a few hundred years later, literacy is an expectation and we have compulsory primary education nearly the world over to secure universal literacy. So we’ve gone through the S-curve of innovation with royal households the early adopters, the upper classes the early majority, and the lower classes the late majority.

    At some point you’re right, literacy is too new and too rare to have created an inequality that we should be mightily concerned about – what does it matter that Hammurabi can write his code to most of the Bronze Age world. But further along the x-axis of adoption, whether one does or does not have access to the innovation has a big impact on the capabilities one has access to. At the point where the innovation, like literacy, becomes a key tool in navigating one’s way through society as a productive member, that’s a point where we should be really concerned about those without access to the innovation and concerned with inequalities in access to the innovation. Now literacy for my purposes has been like an on/off switch – you’ve got it or you don’t, so it can only serve as a window into what concern about inequality means. Move to innovations in health care and we have a much broader spectrum of possible interventions from the most cutting edge that are nearer “early adoption” stages, to the basic tools of medicine that only the “laggards” don’t have access to. Concern for inequality with respect to innovation is precisely the opposite of dismissing an advancement. It is concern with diminishing the number of “laggards” and “the expansion of the ‘capabilities’ of persons to lead the kind of lives they value – and have reason to value.” (to quote Amartya Sen).Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      . I see the perspective outlined in this post as freezing certain human needs in time and not accommodating changing circumstances where people (by my lights) rightly demand more in view of technological advance and innovation.

      I’ll quote The Wizard. “A human being can go weeks without food, days without water, minutes without air, but a lifetime without answers.”

      Needs haven’t changed that much over the last 6000 years or so.

      Wants? Whoa, mama.Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic says:

        Would you describe literacy as merely a “want”? Health care as a “want”? Aren’t they part of the basket of primary goods one needs whatever else one wants to achieve? Physiological needs are at the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy but they don’t constitute the totality of things humans need. To reduce the list to physiology only, well,

        As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
        A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
        Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
        For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”
        As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
        For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
        Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
        Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

        As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
        Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
        Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
        Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!

        As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
        The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
        No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,
        But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!


        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          When it comes to things that are time-dependent (that is to say, they exist at time T but not at time Tsub1), I don’t know that I can categorize them as “things people cannot do without”.Report

          • Avatar Kazzy says:

            Well, if they completely replace previous items that might otherwise have been used, they possibly can become necessities.

            I wouldn’t need a car as much if I could still take my horse down the road to work…Report

            • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

              I wouldn’t need a cell phone if work didn’t demand 24/7 connectivity. I wouldn’t need a car or access to transit if there weren’t a separation between places where housing is located and places where jobs are located. My kids wouldn’t need all their shots if their school didn’t demand their immunization records before admitting them.

              Do we really have to argue whether the shape of society determines what the necessities are?Report

            • Avatar M.A. says:

              You don’t “need” a car. You can just walk 20 miles to/from work each day, regardless of weather. Except that the walking distance is much further, since the shortest or quickest measured routes are generally up powered-vehicle-only expressways.

              Or you can try to use public transportation, depending on the city you live in. I’ve heard it’s quite good in some cities and an exercise in futility in others. New York charges $104 for unlimited riding 30-day passes). Of course you may still need a way to get to or from the main trunk…Report

  10. “The discovery of the polio vaccine created inequality.”

    Mr. Salk is not very happy with you right now, JB.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      The distribution, once universal (or nigh-universal), raised everyone to a higher level.

      My issue is with the assumption that this higher level is actually the ground level.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        My issue is with the assumption that this higher level is actually the ground level.

        Yes, that’s what I took your main theme to be in the OP. I’ve been trying to find the prickly tickler that makes me reluctant to concede as much to your argument as I otherwise might.

        It seems to me (with usual caveats about misunderstanding your OP) that part of your argument presupposes a baseline level of quality of life, or standard of living, and that it’s both static as well as (in some sense) natural. That is, that there is a clearly identifiable natural state people would find themselves in if not for the income and wealth inequalities derived from technological advances. But that claim (if you’re making it) begs lots of questions about how that state arose to begin with. For a person – like myself – who sees centralized power as being the causal source of government, the so-called ‘natural state’ of people is myth. Those states, whatever they are, are shaped just as much if nto more by human behaviors and the forces of political and economic power than they are ‘naturally occurring’. People either choose they type of arrangements they exist within, or those arrangements are imposed on them, and usually the former are playing catch-up push-back against the latter.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          “”My issue is with the assumption that this higher level is actually the ground level.”

          Yes, that’s what I took your main theme to be in the OP. I’ve been trying to find the prickly tickler that makes me reluctant to concede as much to your argument as I otherwise might.”

          I am in a somewhat similar boat. I suppose part of my reluctance has to do with timeframes. Yes, looking back historically, we can see how things have progressed and how the floor has continuously moved upward and onward. But to the guy born today, what does any of that matter? Should we tell him he can’t expect or demand MRIs because had he been born 50-years-ago and he demanded them people wouldn’t even have known what he was talking about? Because we can probably go far enough back to basically negate any perceived right or standard of living…Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            Because we can probably go far enough back to basically negate any perceived right or standard of living…

            Yeah, that’s it. Seems to me that there is no ground level. Whatever levels there are have changed over time and are therefore determined by culture and progress. Not the other way around.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              Why shouldn’t that lead me to the conclusion that people in backwoods China are entitled to completely different things than people in downtown Des Moines?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                I don’t know. How is it a problem if it does?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                If it is the case that people here are entitled to different things than people there, then why wouldn’t it be the case that “the rich” might be entitled to different things than you are? They’re in a different geographical place, certainly (though, granted, closer).Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                But we weren’t talking about entitlements. We were talking about an objectively determined ground level of standard of living or quality of life, or whathaveyou. On my view, the baseline for a person in the backwoods in China might be different than the baseline for us. On you’re view, the baseline appears to be determined by natural rights. I don’t agree with that, for reasons we’ve gone over before.

                But in a nutshell, just because I deny that there are basic rights doesn’t mean that entitlements can be disproportionately or arbitrarily dispersed. First, there are two types of privileges – those dispensed and enforced via government and those which derive from culture and can, and often are, codified. Second, in either case, the an entitlement derived from privilege must meet a heavy burden in order for it to be arbitrarily restricted to only one set of people. So within Chinese culture, if the wealthy enjoy currently enjoy privileges that poor people don’t, the burden is on them to justify excluding the lower classes. Same as here. Same as for any privilege – governmental or cultural.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                If we can objectively determine that the baseline for someone in China is different than for someone like you, why can’t we objectively determine that the baseline for someone like the rich is different than for someone like you?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                I’m not sure I understand the response. It seems you’re implying that rich people comprise a distinct cultural category within a society in the same way that another culture – one governed by different laws, different political processes, different histories, etc – is distinct. So insofar as the baseline for the Chinese can be different, then the baseline for US rich people can be different as well. I’m not sure what follows from that, actually. I disagree that US rich people constitute a distinct culture from the broader US culture it’s embedded in, so I think treating them as if they’re analogous is a mistake (or at least begs some important questions).

                But also, I don’t think there is an objective baseline. That’s your view. My view is that cultural progress and other factors determine the baseline (insofar as one can be determined).Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                But also, I don’t think there is an objective baseline. That’s your view.

                Oh, my mistake! Sorry about that.

                Additionally, I don’t think that there is an objective baseline. As in: there is not an objective baseline. That said, subjective baselines are not terribly interesting to me and the difference between the technologies of this year versus that one are, at the very least, *MEASURABLE* which makes them marginally more useful for stuff like comparisons than feelings.

                I mean, let’s say that there exists a drug out there that will make you feel like everything is juuuuuuust fine. Would application of this drug change anything, in your view, if we vigorously distributed it to people?Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                That said, subjective baselines are not terribly interesting to me and the difference between the technologies of this year versus that one are, at the very least, *MEASURABLE* which makes them marginally more useful for stuff like comparisons than feelings.

                Oh absolutely. If that’s all you’re arguing here, then I’ve been misunderstanding you. Where we started this little subthread was with me suggesting that you’re saying there is a natural, objective, more or less static baseline determined by natural rights which is improved upon by technology and other advances. So I’m in agreement with you that comparisons based on measurable properties are useful. What I was initially suggesting – and what you’re apparently taking exception to – is the idea the relative measurements can be compared to a time and culture independent baseline based on rights (or whatever).Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Well, I also feel that the interesting unit is “the individual” rather than “the society” so if we say that “this person has a Right to such-and-such”, I tend to think that she has this right because she’s a person rather than merely because she lives in Canada.

                If you know what I mean.Report

              • Avatar Jeff says:

                I don’t think so. I’d like to see an International Bill of Rights, with minimum housing, health care, communications, whatever. (I’m also in favor of this IBoR having a minimum wage, but if all else is covered, I could let that go.)Report

  11. I agree with much of your post, although I find Nob’s qualification above as good food for thought, too (that I hadn’t thought about before). I do have a sort of side-quibble (more of a qualification than a quibble) about this point:

    “What we need is even more innovation, more technology, more discoveries, and more advancement.”

    I would just add to this that “innovation,” “technologies,” “discoveries,” and “advancement” don’t happen out of the blue. They are often fostered and implemented with the help of some other mechanism, either the market or government or both. It is possible that there are ways advancement can be encouraged that would not extend inequality as much as other ways. I state that as a possibility and something to consider, although I have no real further elaborations.

    Also, the polio example confuses me. It seems to me that in order for the polio vaccine to work optimally, everyone or almost everyone needs to get it. If put into practice in this way, then it seems that it actually reduces inequality.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      There was a window for the polio vaccine where only people in this part of the country got it, before it became a vaccine where only people in this part of the world got it.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        So we’re clear then, that we do want the inequality only to the extent that it is in fact necessary for Progress, Innovation, Technological Advancement. The pattern seems to be that inequality of access spikes as inventions are invented, then declines as they proliferate. We all agree we want both parts of the pattern to continue, especially the last part, right?

        What about iPods and iPads? Or, as you say, medicines. It seems to me there’s a long-term pattern where the turnaround time from exclusivity to bourgeois ubiquity to general ubiquity is in general decline. This pattern, too, we want to continue, right? So do we agree that what we actually want is the minimum amount of inequality of access to new technologies that is necessary to maximize their development? Unless it turns out that that the maximizing level extends exclusivity of access to certain things we do want to see proliferate much faster (like lifesaving drugs) something like indefinitely, in which case it turns out we actually want a level a little bit shy of the maximizing one. Speaking for myself, in any case.

        These are idealist ruminations. I’m not saying we actually have much control over these rates. I think they’re largely going to be what they’re going to be. But on the other hand, if the government simply purchases them and distributes them in the case of important vaccinations yet to come etc. or other deemed-important new products, I’m not sure I see how that slows down yet-further future development. And that is an action we can choose or not choose.Report

        • Avatar Kazzy says:

          This is what I attempted to touch on in my comments, though I think MikeD did a better job here.

          If productivity and advancement are not harmed by making things immediately available to the masses, why shouldn’t we strive for this through non-coercive means? If they are harmed, how so?

          I genuinely think that a lot of the “harm” done is to the elite losing the sense of being special and having exclusive access to things.Report

        • I believe John Kenneth Galbraith did a lot of work on this very topic (although I’m holding a baby in one hand right now which makes it difficult for me to provide a link.)Report

        • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

          > So we’re clear then, that we do want the
          > inequality only to the extent that it is in
          > fact necessary for Progress, Innovation,
          > Technological Advancement.

          I’m generally sympathetic to this one, but I’d phrase it differently. MikeD’s phrasing requires a precision of measurement I don’t think is possible.

          We tolerate inequality to the extent that our meddling with it doesn’t adversely affect progress, innovation, and technological advancement.

          Inequality is. A certain amount of it (that we can’t directly measure) fosters technological advancement, innovation, and progress. Attempting to “correct” for inequality using systemic processes (like tweaking the highest marginal tax rate) needs to be done with some care, as we can possibly muck things up.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            It seems far more likely to result in the cutting down of the tall poppies rather than in the raising of the “floor”.

            (For the record, when the tall poppy gets that way the same way that Yertle the Turtle did, I’ve much, much less of a problem with turtles proverbially burping. I just take issue with what seems to be a general assumption that if someone can see farther, then they’re standing on someone else’s back rather than on the shoulders of giants.)Report

    • Avatar Lyle says:

      I recall that during the late 1950s and early 1960s there were public sessions where both the Salk and the Sabine (sugar cube) vaccines were given out to the public at sessions in school gyms. Back at that time polio was a major cause of worry to parents and my parents for example took me to the doctor to get the shots at the first chance they had. Then the sugar cube came along and we went to a school gym to get it.Report

  12. First, this is a great and thoughtful post, and I think it helps to narrow the issue.

    Second, however, is that the issue is not that increased inequality is inherently, always and everywhere, bad. It is that a long-term trend of increasing inequality is bad and potentially disastrous. Short-term fluctuations are fine, and perhaps even good for the reasons you suggest.

    But as Nob pointed out, each of the developments to which you cite ultimately had the effect of reducing inequality.

    One of the problems with the trend towards rising inequality that we see now is that we’re going to get a lot less of the innovations in health care and medical treatment that are at the core of intermittent, “good” increases in inequality.

    Living where I live, you wind up getting to know folks in the pharmaceutical industry. Now, I wouldn’t know where to get the statistics to back what I write below up, but the folks I’ve spoken to, from different companies, seem to tell the same story and seem to agree that it’s a universal trend amongst Big Pharma. Though not something that I’ve heard from these acquaintances, it’s also worth pointing out that much has been written in the last decade or so about the trend towards relabeling long-extant drugs to preserve their patents rather than trying to create new drugs.

    But it’s worse than that from what I’ve been told. Big Pharma companies, by and large, are no longer run by people with backgrounds in chemistry or even, well, pharmaceuticals. They’re run by people who just know “business,” largely out of touch with what was once the companies’ business purpose. They’re part and parcel of the financial and political elites, hand-selected for the job by the financial and political elites.

    Want to know why there have been an ungodly number of mass recalls of, e.g., children’s medicine the last few years? The quality control chemists have been getting laid off left and right. Or transferred (see below).

    The chemists working on developing and researching new drugs? They, too, are being laid off left and right. Or transferred (see below).

    The ones who are transferred? They’re going to the growing consumer products divisions, trying to develop nicer smelling shampoos.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      and who the hell cares if those nicer smelling shampoos make MOOBs??
      only the scientists, looking at the destruction people are wrecking.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Want to know why there have been an ungodly number of mass recalls of, e.g., children’s medicine the last few years? The quality control chemists have been getting laid off left and right. Or transferred (see below).

      The chemists working on developing and researching new drugs? They, too, are being laid off left and right. Or transferred (see below).

      I submit:

      When there are fewer new drugs being created, we will hear fewer arguments about how access to new drugs is a Human Right.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi says:

        Fucking bullshit Jay.
        We are seeing the end of the chemical revolution, and the right wants to stop the upcomign biological revolution.
        We are right now seeing the “fewer new drugs created” and right now we’re playing to make sure that “access to new drugs is a human right” (or at least more moral than letting embryos die a peaceful, unfeeling death)Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          How many of the advances provided by stem cell research (cure for diabetes, perhaps?) would you say that you’re entitled to?Report

          • Avatar Kimmi says:

            you know, I’m going to think about that. I think i would express it in a better way, if I could — “how many of the advances is the world entitled to?”
            Bear in mind that much of my philanthropy goes towards making certain that third world countries have advances.Report

      • I don’t think anyone claims that cheap access to new drugs is a human right; certainly there are plenty of people who claim that cheap access to all drugs, including new ones, is a human right. If we have fewer and fewer new drugs hitting the market, those complaints, justified or not, will remain, probably in equal volume. This will also be true if the new drugs that do hit the market are less and less useful to the majority of people.

        Additionally, keep in mind that drugs ordinarily take a long time to develop, and not just because of the FDA’s absurd approval process. To the extent new drugs are coming out, most of the overhead investments were committed at least a decade ago, maybe two. If what my acquaintances tell me is true, then we are going to see fewer and fewer new drugs coming onto the market over the course of the next decade.

        This is not because there is less consumer demand for new drugs and more consumer demand for nicer smelling shampoo; it is because the demand of the median consumer has become less and less relevant, and business elites have become more and more culturally isolated.

        No, this is not a problem that can be solved by government, and I fully believe that attempts to solve it by government will primarily succeed in making it worse. Hell, I’m not entirely certain that the problem isn’t substantially caused by government accretion of power (much of it is certainly globalization, though it’s not as if the countries where labor is being sent are beacons of laissez-faire). Which is why it’s especially important that libertarians recognize this as a very real potential problem. Libertarian-friendly solutions are, IMHO, the only solutions with a shot of working here.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          I do not know who is telling you fewer drugs are in the pipeline. It simply isn’t true. Drugs don’t take long to develop. They take a long time to test, but that time is decreasing as well. Many older drug formulations are being revisited, those compounds applied to conditions where nobody even considered they might work.

          We’re coming to terms with protein folding, much of which is being done in the public domain. As those maps are constructed, filling in the blanks required to construct the drugs, the pharmaceutical firms benefit from this sort of distributed processing power, beyond even the power of government entities.

          The FDA is not the problem here. The American approval process keeps drugs like thalidomide out of pregnant women where other, less-thorough vetting did not discover this problem.

          And don’t listen to the drugs companies about how much this costs. If Pfizer is any guide, and I speak from personal experience here, they spend far more on marketing than research. Thalidomide is being re-evaluated for treatment of leprosy, still a big problem in the world. It’s also being evaluated for the treatment of AIDS.

          Making a drug requires a target. Plenty of targets remain hidden in the weeds, schizophrenia is just one such target. Most cancers, too. Bill Gates is putting his money on a malaria cure, but malaria is tricksy. Think of wrapping a ball in a strand of multi-coloured yarn, where there’s no discernible pattern on the outside. Malaria adapts to new drugs with surprising speed.

          The Libertarians are really no guide here. Without subsidising the manufacture of drugs for use in poor countries, those diseases will go untreated and the problems of inequality will only grow worse: a problem for which the Libertarians have no answer. Untreated malaria and concomitant fever cause brain damage in children. Those jobs will never go to a brain-damaged population.Report

          • Blaise: I’m not saying so much that fewer drugs are currently in the pipeline as I am that fewer drugs will be in the pipeline. It definitely seems to be the case that the big pharma companies are reducing their investment in new drug development and in existing drug quality control by laying off chemists in those divisions left and right or transferring them to consumer products divisions.

            I do not doubt for a second that my conclusions from those facts may be wrong, but it certainly seems a logical conclusion to me.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP says:

              This comes as news to me. The layoffs I have seen are the result of mergers. Pfizer acquired Wyeth some while back, overlaps were eliminated but that’s hardly indicative of reductions in R&D. Biochemists still seem to be in high demand, though your experience may be instructive here.

              Here’s what’s happening, from my perspective. I did Pfizer’s SOA bindings for its acquisition of Warner-Lambert. Came back in to advise on the Wyeth acquisition for a few weeks, mostly to look at what had happened to the old W-L tie-outs since I’d been gone.

              The talk around both shops is fearful rumours about the big money drugs going out of patent. But the numbers boys and girls aren’t so afraid of that situation: they’re worried about the genetics shops coming up with custom drugs on a per-patient basis. That’s where cancer’s going these days and the money’s in cancer.Report

        • No, this is not a problem that can be solved by government, and I fully believe that attempts to solve it by government will primarily succeed in making it worse. Hell, I’m not entirely certain that the problem isn’t substantially caused by government accretion of power (much of it is certainly globalization, though it’s not as if the countries where labor is being sent are beacons of laissez-faire). Which is why it’s especially important that libertarians recognize this as a very real potential problem. Libertarian-friendly solutions are, IMHO, the only solutions with a shot of working here.

          It seems to me that if the point you make in your antepenultimate sentence is true, then any solution will likely involve or require action by government. It seems that the markets are so implicated in the way the government(s) coordinates them and that they are bound to be so complex in anything like the foreseeable future that it’s something of a false dichotomy to say that “government won’t solve the problem.”

          Now, I’m being purposely persnickety. I know (or strongly suspect) that when you say the problem won’t be solved by government, you mean that Congress passing a law to make sure that “the FDA will really get it right this time” is probably not going to work. I agree with you if that’s what you mean. But as you know, the problem is much more complex than that.Report

          • Just to elaborate:

            I don’t think you think the dichotomy is as strong as I seem to be accusing you of thinking it is. But I have noticed that in this symposium, people have tended to speak of “government” and “market” as if they were two distinct and distinguishable “things.” I think they are so entangled with each other and that it’s useful to recognize the entanglement.Report

        • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

          I dunno.

          I think a lot more investment in fundamental sciences research on a much more basic level than most companies are willing to do would go a long way toward fixing some of the pipeline issues, in that it’ll give a better knowledge base to develop new drugs on.Report

  13. Avatar Morat20 says:

    It’d be pretty sweet if the — for lack of a better term — “pro-inequality” people got this through their heads:

    NO ONE — well, no one here. I can’t speak for, say, communists — but heck, NO SIGNIFICANT AMERICAN EVEN — is advocating for the “end” of inequality.

    Once again: Water’s great, but too much drowns you. A drowning man isn’t asking for you to abolish water. He’s asking for you to drain enough that he can stand. (or at least remove the water from his lungs!).

    I don’t think, for instance, that current levels of inequality are needed for progress, innovation, or the like. Were the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s less innovative than now? More? What about the 1920s? 1890s?

    You’d think the people worried about inequality were begging for the destruction of capitalism as a whole — we’re not.

    We are, however, sincerely worried about a situation that seems to be moving towards something far more fuedal than democratic.

    And for those pragmatic about it, I’d like to reiterate an earlier point: Concentrated wealth means an there is a massive excess of capital and a paucity of demand. Such things would lead to, just off the top of my head, bubbles in financial markets.

    Probably also a finance-industry dominated economy, lots of shenangians involving investments and credit — basically as sloshing giant piles of monet that can’t effectively be “spent” search around looking for good returns. (Which, if they find them, merely excacerbates the problem).

    It’s getting pretty Brewsters Millions here. The .1% are sitting on a giant chunk of the income, but they can only spend a practically non-existant fraction of it. The 99.9% fueled the last decade, minimum, on credit — they desperate need a freakin’ raise if the economy is going to move on.

    Because that 0.1%, no matter how rich, cannot sustain an economy off their own spending habits. And the 99.9% are broke.

    See the problem? Economies need demand — need spending — to work. It’s not going to work well when too much of the wealth is concentrated in an investment class, you need both.

    I’m sure there’s a fancy economic term for it, but people worried about income inequality might have a lot of things to say about it (from moral to pragmatic) but what it boils down to is the gut feeling the system isn’t working because it’s radically out of tilt.

    And sure, I susppose it will EVENTUALLY self-correct — not sure how long it took us to get out of a fuedal society, but we did — but why on earth would we wait? We employ monetary and fiscal policy to smooth out the market. Why wouldn’t we employ a similar thumb on the scales to deal with the fact that, as it stands, the “investment” half of the equation has ridiculously too much cash while the “demand” side is screwed from lack of cash?Report

    • Avatar Kimmi says:

      self-correct? no, they’re going to outsource America to China. The consumers in china are far far less picky about washing machines. and once we are no longer either a producer, a consumer or an inventor… The rich’ll leave.

      This dose of black humor comes from a friend of mine, who used to work for a bunch of rich 1%ersReport

  14. Avatar NoPublic says:

    Warning: I’m going to go there.

    In 1889, a black man could be killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and chances are nobody would ever even discuss it being a crime, let along charge someone for it.

    Nowadays, he has to be buying skittles and an iced tea for that to happen. OK, that was snark. The point is that saying that the 21st century black man has nothing to complain about because at least he’s not being killed in the street like a dog anymore (mostly) is a very poor argument indeed. Sure, eventually he (the putative future generational he) will be better off than he is now, perhaps idyllically so. It’s cold comfort, though.

    Polio vaccination in the US didn’t just happen organically. It happened because even though it was costly (comparatively, at about $30 a head) and some people certainly couldn’t afford it, the government redressed that inequality for the good of the nation (and in a pretty darn speedy fashion).Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Your first part would be an excellent argument to bring up against the folks who complain that “we” feel less secure than “we” did in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I wish that the folks who argue that point would do a better job of addressing your counter-argument. Any arguments that I come up with rely heavily on people being happier because they’re ignorant of what others have which, while an argument *I* am comfortable with, I don’t know that such is an argument that they’d want associated with their own view.

      As for the last part, yes. It seems that government accelerating the distribution of absolutely essential medical advancements is right and proper… my issue is when I get into arguments over such things as Viagra being covered by Medicare.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 says:

        Actually no one really argued about Viagra until a bunch of guys decided the Pill was recreational.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          This does not jibe with my experience of arguing with people.

          “The people with whom you argue are likely outliers.”


        • Avatar Stillwater says:


          That’s not to say a debate over inclusion of Viagra in those types of benefit arrangements is out of bounds, acourse. Just to say that the people who advocate for inclusion of the Pill don’t specifically care unless the pill is excluded, and conversely, that the people who think the pill out to be excluded but not Viagra are exhibiting an unveiled sense of privilege in thinking that there is a distinction between the two worth codifying.Report

          • Avatar Jaybird says:

            I assure you, I had this argument back in the early oughts.

            Long before the argument over whether the birth control mandate ought to apply to insurance policies that cater to Catholics went mainstream.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              I believe it. I initially was on the ‘no Viagra coverage’ side of things. At some point, maybe due to the wide spread use of those types of drugs, I switched to the ‘sure, throw it in with everything else’ side.

              What seems strange to me is a thought process trying to establish a that only Viagra or the Pill ought to be covered and not the other. I’m pretty comfortably on the side that both things should be included. I could potentially be persuaded that neither thing should be included. I could not – I don’t think – be persuaded that only one thing should be included.Report

      • Avatar NoPublic says:

        Your first part would be an excellent argument to bring up against the folks who complain that “we” feel less secure than “we” did in the 1950?s and 1960?s. I wish that the folks who argue that point would do a better job of addressing your counter-argument. Any arguments that I come up with rely heavily on people being happier because they’re ignorant of what others have which, while an argument *I* am comfortable with, I don’t know that such is an argument that they’d want associated with their own view.

        And by inference, is not an excellent argument against your attempted lemma on griping about inequality since the progress that it involves raises all boats… eventually. If they weren’t sunk or sold for scrap in the interim. You’ll pardon me if I reject your damning me with faint praise as it were. Dodging the discussion doesn’t strengthen your fallacy.Report

  15. Avatar James Vonder Haar says:

    This strikes me as overly simplistic. While it is true that economic innovation exacerbates inequality, it is by no means clear that the measures used to alleviate that inequality damage innovation.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:


      I would agree that some measures can lead to less inequality and more innovation. I believe the more effective efforts in education, bankruptcy law, and social safety nets would all qualify here.

      A lot of the efforts to reduce inequality come in the form of attempting to prevent creative destruction. The guild fights to maintain its privileged position by opposing innovation and new entrants, is an example.Report

  16. I am trying to do fifteen different things at once right now, so I apologize that I can’t really contribute anything to the conversation. (Which assumes I could have, all else being equal.) But this was a truly fantastic post.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      I thought of you when I wrote the part about Toxemia.

      Is toxemia particularly common today?Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        “I was writing about toxemia and I thought of you”.

        I realize that that did not come out the way that I intended it to.Report

      • Toxemia isn’t called that any longer. The new term is preeclampsia, and it is indeed quite common. Bloodletting isn’t done any longer, but I can at least understand the notion of how if was meant to work. (Elevated blood pressure is a hallmark of the disorder. Less blood –> lower volume –> less pressure.) There are several treatments, though they are not always effective. It is one of the reasons to deliver a baby early (sometimes quite early), in order to prevent the disorder from threatening the life of the mother.Report

  17. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Comparisons across time are always problematic. It is the hallmark of the bad historian that he views the past through the lenses of the present. Yes, we have better drugs and MRIs and all manner of advances. And yes, there will always be inequality in the system. The problem arises when we consider access to these technological advances.

    You would introduce Salk’s polio vaccine as evidence of inequality. Vaccination is only useful if everyone is vaccinated. Thus polio was eliminated in the USA and most of the world. Where polio remains endemic, we might truthfully say it represents inequality. The whole point of vaccination is to eradicate a disease, not protect individuals.

    This business of Liberal Egalitarianism is a straw man. Nobody but the Communists ever believed it was remotely possible: even they would prioritise in the interests of their ubiquitous plans. Even in communal societies, where resources are shared, they are not shared alike. If the underlying axioms of ownership differ among societies, the concept remains largely the same.

    The poverty of the past is not equivalent to present poverty. If we are to examine history for how inequality and poverty have created instability, this we can say with some validity: it doesn’t matter how rich the rich become in a given society – as long as the poor do not become alienated from that society. When that point is reached, when the disconnect becomes large enough, when the overlords become oppressive enough, in the words of the Declaration of Independence:

    Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

    Safety and Happiness. Sufferable Evils. Abuses and usurpations. Absolute Despotism. Despotism takes many forms and it has been my experience the Despot’s power derives from his coterie of hangers-on and lickspittles and special interests who financially benefit from his Abuses and Usurpations.

    Yes, mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable. But there’s a limit to that disposition. When the poor, however subjectively, become alienated and lose hope, they will use their one remaining advantage, the advantage of numbers. Once the rich feared the poor. If there is another lesson to be learned from history, when the rich fail to attenuate those evils below a insufferable level, they will shortly find their heads on the ends of pikes.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Blaise you bring up an interesting issue. There’s one dynamic that I see show up from time to time and I think it’s representative of a very, very ugly undercurrent in human nature.

      Now, without getting into the argument of “you need to take this into account” vs. “people shouldn’t act on their basest urges”, I’ll point to the Wisdom of Solomon story again.

      I don’t think that the “real” mother is a particularly interesting character and I don’t think that Solomon is a particularly interesting character.

      The mother who said “yes! Cut the baby in half!” is a very interesting character indeed.

      This emotion being displayed by the other mother is one that I can’t think of a name for, off the top of my head (surely it has a name… surely it deserves one if it doesn’t)… but this emotion is one that you can see bubble up from time to time in discussions of inequality (rather than merely in discussions of poverty).

      This emotion is one that should be fought against… by individuals, by society, by leaders.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        There are a few German phrases for it, roughly equivalent to the English proverbial phrase, “Dog in the Manger”: unable to eat grass, the dog will not let the hungry cows at it.

        But since you bring up Solomon, there’s the case of his son Rehoboam, who decided to increase taxes against the judgement of his advisors. His arrogance would lead to the division of the kingdom of Israel, already a smallish power in the region if the stories are to be believed. Well, Egypt took advantage of this situation and conquered Rehoboam and took all his goodies anyway. Judah became a vassal state of Egypt.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        I don’t recall which prince it is the story’s about, but at age 16 he’s introduced to the wonders of physical love by a famous and skilled courtesan. After they’re done, she explains to him that it isn’t only fun, it’s also how babies are made.

        “Royal babies, of course. But how do peasants have babies?”

        “The same way.”

        “Nonsense. It’s too good for peasants.”Report

  18. Avatar Morat20 says:

    So, out of curiousity, why aren’t you agitating in support of an oligarchy? Obviously the most unequal society would be one or more super-rich guys owning practically everything, and everyone else working for them at the minimum possible to keep them alive. (I will assume our benevolent Galtian Overlords, in this case, are wise enough not to destroy the resource that is their worker force).

    If that’s not the case — if the most innovative society ISN’T one — then either innovation isn’t tied to inequality as tightly as you claim, or else there exists a certain point at which inequality becomes stifling, not productive.

    In which case, the entire point of your post is a dodge — and a stawman. One I’ve seen repeated over and over.

    No one, not liberals or socialists or Democrats or even flat-out communists — are arguing for economic equality. What they are saying — in increasingly worried tones — is that the current state of inequality is so bad that it’s causing all sorts of nasty effects — from moral or economic.

    And given the current state is, in fact, considerably worse than it has been in a hundred years — you can’t really dismiss them as fear-mongering, insofar as the current situation is WELL outside the norm of the last century.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      I don’t believe that centralization will result in more innovation or technological advancement.

      I do, of course, mourn the death of Bell Labs. I don’t know the best way to bring it back… though I’m certain that oligarchy isn’t it.

      That’s why I don’t support oligarchy.

      And given the current state is, in fact, considerably worse than it has been in a hundred years — you can’t really dismiss them as fear-mongering, insofar as the current situation is WELL outside the norm of the last century.

      I look at the current state and can’t believe that we have achieved as much as we have and have distributed as much of what we have as we have. I go back to “what would ending poverty look like?” and see that, once again, we’re talking about inequality and how very much difference there is between us and them rather than ensuring that everyone has, say, four walls, hot and cold water, indoor plumbing, etc.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 says:

        Um, what on EARTH do you think income inequality IS?

        It’s the centralization of wealth. Why do you think people are suddenly worried now? It’s not like the US has gotten suddenly socialistic! (We’ve lurched heavily right as a country, not left!)

        So you are literally saying “I don’t think centralization brings innovation, unless that centralization is wealth. But I’m against oligarchies”.

        So you’re for what? A democratic government of serfs and 99.9% of the wealth locked in a few hands? How do you actually think that’s gonna work?

        And ONCE AGAIN: The reason income inequality has come up, and stayed up, has nothing to do with wars on poverty. It has to do with — you guessed it — concentration of wealth to a ludicrous degree. You seem to be bound and determined to fight against concepts no one is really bringing up, rather than focus on what they are.

        We’re not playing capitalists v communists here.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Um, what on EARTH do you think income inequality IS?

          A distraction.Report

          • Avatar Morat20 says:

            So that’s a big fat no on addressing your inherent contradictions?

            You’re against centralization, except centralization of wealth, which is good?

            Even though taken to it’s logical extreme, centralization of wealth creates — at best — an oligarchy? Or some other fuedal system, of a wealthy few lording it over the serfs?

            That’s your end goal there, that’s the glory of your pro-innovation inequality.

            Now the rest of us — the sane ones that live in the real world — think that SOMEWHERE between the communist utopia and the fuedal state lies a decent middle that maxizes things.

            But you obviously not only don’t want to talk about it, you don’t even want to admit it’s there.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              As an insane one who lives in fantasy land, I’d ask when have we ever been closer to the decent middle that maxizes things than this generation of people?Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                Hmm. Anytime between now and the 1920s.

                This isn’t rocket science, so I’m kind of confused as to your willful blindness.

                From the 1930s through, oh, 1980 there was a massive technological explosion without massive income inequality. It was there, but we weren’t talking Gilded Age.

                And then around 1983, strangely, income inequality started growing — not just a little (well, except for a brief time out in the mid 90s)– and then went stratospheric a decade ago and hasn’t looked back.

                And yet…I can’t say the pace of technological change is any different now than then. Moore’s Law is still obeyed. We’re still driving cars, watching TVs, going to movie theaters.

                We have iPods and not vinyl — data density has improved — on Moore’s Law. We have giant TVs and faster computres — right on Moore’s law.

                The pace of change hasn’t, you know, changed.

                So I can’t help but wonder why you think today’s massive income inequality is somehow necessary for today’s pace of change, when the SAME pace of change was accomplished in the 1960s without it!Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                I guess the shorter version of my argument is:

                You confuse “change” with “pace of change”. Your income inequality argument is based on the pace of change increasing, but all you’ve talked about is change.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                This isn’t rocket science, so I’m kind of confused as to your willful blindness.

                I’d rather be black today than in 1920.
                I’d rather be gay today than in 1920.
                I’d rather be female today than in 1920.

                I’d certainly rather be a gay black woman today than in 1920.

                The emotions you feel might, in fact, be “thwarted entitlement” rather than “justified anger following theft”.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                So what, you’re just gonna duck the point? Keep ducking it?

                You’re not making yourself look better. You blindly confused change and rate of change, built your whole point on it using the wrong one, and made assumptions you won’t back up.

                And your answer? “it’s better now than it was 50 years ago!”.

                Well, duh, genius. Moore’s law says a computer chip built 18 months from now will have twice as many transistors. Which has been true going back, oh, 40 years. (Kurtzweil notes that technically it’s been true at least back to the printing press in terms of information density).

                Yet I’m not going to claim a “computer revolution” occured over the next 18 months because it happened.

                Yet here you are, making the same claim. “Look, computers have twice as many transistors! And income inequality got worse! Ergo, YAY INCOME INEQUALITY! Without it our computers would not have doubled their transistor numbers every eighteen months”.Report

              • Avatar NoPublic says:

                Give it up. He’s punted the point so far away you couldn’t see it with Hubble.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                No, it’s that what you see as “willing blindness” is something that I see as “removal of blinders”.

                Instead of narrowing my focus to comparing my life to what my dad lived with (or my grandad), I’m comparing a lot more of everybody and comparing it to what they would have lived like during the same time.

                We’re *ALL* a *LOT* better off. Our houses are better, our life expectancy is better, our leisure is better… perhaps those things that are higher up on Maslow’s scale aren’t as good but, quite honestly, I can’t see myself as responsible for those of yours.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                Jay, I realize this is a struggle — but answer me honestly: Do you understand the difference between “change” and “rate of change”?

                Because let me lay out your argument and conclusions using a simple analogy — we’re in a car, driving at exactly 20mph.

                You look at us and say “Look! A day ago you were only twenty miles from home! Now you’re 480 miles from home! LOOK HOW MUCH FASTER YOU ARE TRAVELLING THAN YOU USED TO”.

                You are talking about distance travelled, claiming it’s speed, and making a conclusion that is COMPLETELY UNSUPPORTED. Because “Speed” and “distance” aren’t the same damn thing.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                And when you say “I should actually be 600 miles further instead of just 480! 700! 800!”, I want to know *WHY* you think that.

                I suspect it’s because you’re just looking at the Ferraris and Lambourginis ahead of you instead of the Datsuns and Yugos behind.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                I can only assume at this point you are WILLFULLY refusing to admit the point. Which indicates you have NO plans to address it.

                Your entire post is fatally flawed because you conflate “change” and “rate of change”. Your post’s basis thesis requires the second (“growing income inequality accelerated technological rate of change”) but your only examples are things that changed.

                At no point do you defend, add an example, or otherwise support your main point — your data only supports that things have changed over time.

                Which they have ALWAYS done. You need to show that growing income inequality has accelerated this rate of change to show it was “good”, otherwise it’s a non-factor.

                If income inequality increased but technology progressed at exactly the same rate, then it’s a pretty damn hard row to hoe to claim growing income inequality was behind technological change.

                Because it obviously wasn’t 40 years ago.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Because it obviously wasn’t 40 years ago.

                What’s obvious to you is not obvious to me. I’d much rather be a member of any given minority today than I would in 1972… though, granted, being a white male in 1972 wouldn’t be so bad. That’s the funny thing about being a white male, though: you can pick a whole lotta times that wouldn’t have been so bad to be a white male in and, if you’re looking for particular things, you might find some of them to be even better than today.

                My point is this: if you’re looking for equality, you’re better off looking around today. If you’re looking for stability… well, you might be better off looking in the past. I don’t know, though. There are a lot of stories about how the past wasn’t as nice as we now know it was through benefit of hindsight.Report

              • Avatar Morat20 says:

                Seriously, WTF?

                I had higher expectations of you than “random internet troll”.

                You ignore the entirety of my point, quote a single line out of context, and pretend that’s what I’m saying?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                I don’t see income inequality as interesting.

                Why? Because it’s a problem that could be “solved” through a thorough application of ignorance. If you don’t know that someone out there has a (thing), you will never envy that thing, you will never feel entitled to that thing.

                *POVERTY* is interesting, mind… and I think it’s very interesting to compare the impoverished from (then) to the impoverished of now but, apparently, that’s not a good comparison because of the problems that would seem to be solved through more ignorance.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Right at the end of the Black Plague, serfs got the upper hand on the landed class and walked into town to become burghers. It was the beginning of the end of serfdom in Western Europe. It was the beginning of what we’d call the Middle Class.Report

        • Avatar Kimmi says:

          wouldn’t have to be: if we were all authors, we’d all have years where we made !millions! and years where we made zip.Report

  19. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Went to see Othello tonight. Two things stuck out:

    Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
    ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
    But he that filches from me my good name
    Robs me of that which not enriches him,
    And makes me poor indeed.

    The fact that Desdemona was not unfaithful mattered little to Othello because he was sure that what was “his” was actually on occasional loan to someone else. What *WAS* was less important than what was perceived and Iago telling him that someone else had his stuff WAS NOT ON HIS SIDE.

    I posit this: your little Iagos giving you counsel that your stuff is in someone else’s hands? They’re not on your side.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      So you financial types, the ones who ran your companies into the ground, and then paid yourselves bonuses out of our bailout money? All you got was trash to fill your wallets. What matters is that we all think you’re assholes. Hah! You lose.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I do wish that there was a political party (a *REAL* one, I mean) that opposed the bailouts.

        Anyway, that speech did stick with me as did the passion and certainty that Othello had that he had been wronged.Report

  20. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    This is a fantastic post, but I’d like to complicate things just a bit.

    We’ve often used Louis XIV as an example, so let’s use him again. Sure, his medical care was awful, and when he got sick his treatment was functionally no better than a peasant’s.

    But he did have a splendid carriage, and the peasant had to walk. He had ermine and silk; the peasant had rags. Louis lived in fishin’ Versailles, and I’d take that over the peasant’s hut, even if Versailles didn’t have reliable heating (which it didn’t).

    Today a rich guy gets driven around in a Bentley or possibly just drives himself, even. I drive a Toyota. It’s a lot less nice, but it’s not crappy, and it’s less of a difference than walking-versus-carriage. A rich guy might eat at a slightly nicer restaurant, but not by a whole lot. Very, very few people wear rags. No one wears ermine. Silk comes and goes as a fashion, at least for men. And so forth. There are ways in which the gap has definitely closed for most of us, even if not for the very worst off.

    It’s possible that these material differences ebb and flow through history. I’m willing to consider that 17th-century France was a time of exceptional inequality in material goods, while 19th-century America was maybe not quite so unequal. (Maybe not, anyway. But then I’ve seen the Biltmore estate. Wow.)

    Is it possible that for a lot of functional things — transportation, food, health care — we’re not terribly unequal today? But that in other functional things we are increasingly unequal? I’d think education is probably first on the inequality list, if I had to make one.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      Great comment. I wonder if we’re putting too much stock into the monetary value assigned to particular goods/services instead of actually evaluating the differences between them.

      For instance, the internet tells me that the most expensive car available on the market is the Bugatti Veyron Super Sports, listed at $2.4M. The internet also tells me I can get a ’97 Civic on Craig’sList for $2,700. That is almost a 1000x difference. HOLY CRAP! But is the Bugatti REALLY 1000x better than the Civic? Probably not, when it really comes down to it.

      How about food? I recently read an article about a $1000 slice of pizza. I think it has caviar on it and truffles and all kinds of fancy jazz. Is that really going to be 500x better than the regular slice I get for $2? Again, probably not.

      With some things, the difference might be as stark, if not even more so, than the numbers indicate. Education is probably one of them. While a private college education might not be 6-8x better than a public college one in their own rights, the different opportunities the former might provide certainly could exacerbate the price difference. Even in primary education, where the public option is free, there might be minimum thresholds missed in a truly bad school situation that make even the infinite percentage difference between public and private fail to capture the two crap.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        …two crap? True gap. What am I doing here?Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        Yes. The goods you cite are examples of the rich bidding up luxury goods rather than encroaching on the poor. If we must have rich people, these are the sorts of things we would prefer them to be doing.

        Again, however, giving their children a vastly better education is possibly a more serious cause for concern. I say “possibly” because it’s not entirely clear that this is a problem public policy can fix. If higher education really is just signaling, then there will always be a pecking order of schools; one’s choice of school will be a positional good, and that can’t really be helped. And if, as seems to be the case, public schools’ test scores for high school and lower are highly insensitive to increased spending… well, what can we do? This isn’t an easy problem by any means.Report

      • Avatar M.A. says:

        The internet also tells me I can get a ’97 Civic on Craig’sList for $2,700.

        What the internet doesn’t tell you is:

        – That ’97 Civic has over 200k miles on it, a number of broken “features”, structural fatigue and parts failing, and will probably cost $2500 or more per year to maintain including a likely need to replace the power steering column or transmission somewhere in the next year or two.

        – That ’97 Civic is probably going to be bought by someone who can barely afford the up-front cost on it, but whose economic abilities will be drastically hindered by having to pay the maintenance costs.

        – Meanwhile, Bugatti Veyron Super Sports, listed at $2.4M, will be bought by someone to whom $2.4M is pocket change. It will be covered by a lifetime warranty including oil changes.

        The wealthy can afford the extravagance without flinching, and buying the Bugatti is not a burden. Meanwhile the ’97 civic, for someone who desperately needs it as a necessity to get to/from the workplace, is at least as likely as not to be an economic albatross.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      But that in other functional things we are increasingly unequal? I’d think education is probably first on the inequality list, if I had to make one.

      This is just off the top of my head but I don’t know that this is the case.

      Mama, for example, could not read or write (she could write her own name instead of having to make a mark). Had she been born one generation later, she would have learned to read. The percentage of folks who knew how to read and write back then strikes me as being much, much smaller than it is today.

      At the upper end, I was told by my professors some of the stories that their professors told them. “To get a PhD in Philosophy, you had to know at least one other language and preferably two! They gave you a sheet in German/Latin/Greek/French and you had to translate it in two hours! Reading (insert philosopher here) in the original was something that you had to be able to do in order to be called Doctor!”
      “Can you do that?”
      “No, they changed that in the 60’s.”

      If we look at our heroes from the Enlightenment, they were true polymaths who knew about friggin’ everything *AND* they could play the violin/piano/flute.

      Today? Nobody knows everything anymore… but they know deep things about what they do know. Dear Russell knows more about natal science than anybody in the 18th century and he chit-chats over coffee in the morning with folks who know more about (I don’t know who he chit-chats over coffee with in the morning but I’m pretty sure that it’s a reasonable assumption to put something like “gastrointestinal” or “renal” or “endocrine” science here) than people knew about as recently as 100 (50?) years ago.

      There’s also the little issue about how I’m sure that our Enlightenment heroes knew a lot more about The Humors than you or I do, you and I both have the benefit of knowing that Humor Science is hokum (though, yes, they should teach the controversy).

      All that to say… the bottom end of education has really been democratized in that we’re approaching universal literacy and the folks at the right end of the curve are specialists (that go for miles into a discipline) rather than universalists (who don’t go that deep). It feels different. (But maybe that’s because, as a guy with a degree, I’m already deep into education’s “middle class”.)Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:

        I’d venture to guess that education might be something that needs to be looked at relatively, especially since we view education largely as a means to and end and not an end to itself. Like you said, most folks can read now, which was mot always the case. An triumph view absolutely. But years ago, being able to read used to propel you greatly forward; nowadays, it doesn’t get you mich of anywhere.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          years ago, being able to read used to propel you greatly forward; nowadays, it doesn’t get you mich of anywhere.

          That was a scarcity issue, though. Reading/writing had a premium attached to it because it was rare on top of how much it was intrinsically worth. As everybody learned to read/write, the scarcity premium disappeared but the overall value increase *ECLIPSED* the previous overall value that included a lot of scarcity premiums.

          I suspect that this is a lot of what we see folks complaining about today when it comes to how things used to be better. They see how their ancestors had a scarcity premium on top of their skills.

          As availability for these things increased, inequality from these things decreased, but so did the scarcity premium.Report

      • Avatar M.A. says:

        If we look at our heroes from the Enlightenment, they were true polymaths who knew about friggin’ everything *AND* they could play the violin/piano/flute.

        Even in the Enlightenment, learning to play an instrument was a leisure activity. Learning a language was a leisure activity. Both required hiring – at pretty sizable expense – a private tutor, or else being the son/daughter of one (for example: Mozart). For the non-firstborn sons of the aristocracy in feudal times, it was their lot in life; they’d be handed the education “due” to them and seated as a tutor or scribe somewhere until needed to inherit a title due to untimely demise of their elder brother.

        “First Son Inherits, Second Son to War, Third Son to the Church, the Rest to business.”Report