How the Left and the Right Talk about Inequality

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by John Goodman,

from NCPA,

If I were to reduce to a bumper sticker the way the left thinks about the world these days, it would read:

Inequality happens

If I were to reduce to a bumper sticker the way the right thinks about the same subject, it would read:

Inequality happens for a reason

This is not a small distinction. For President Obama, inequality is the public policy issue du jour. And like lemmings, left wing editorial writers and bloggers can think of nothing else to write about. But here is something that may surprise you. The most interesting analyses of the problem are on the right, not the left. For the most part, all the left does is deplore. They seem to have no interest in understanding why we have a problem.

By contrast, both Charles Murray and Tyler Cowen argue that problematic change is occurring: the middle is disappearing and people are gravitating into the upper and lower strata of society. For Murray the reason is behavioral. For Cowen, it is technological.

It isn’t that left-of-center scholars are ignoring these things. Work is being done by economists at the Brookings Institution, for example. But you are more likely to learn of this work in a David Brooks column than in one by Paul Krugman, Nicholas Kristof or Robert Frank — three other New York Times columnists who write about inequality frequently.

Let’s start with Murray, who says we are experiencing an ever widening cultural divide.

Upper-middle class professional types may pretend that they are cultural relativists, accepting of whatever lifestyle their fellow human beings happen to choose. In reality, they live by old fashioned puritan values, however. They get married and stay married. They work hard and work long hours.

Not so for the blue collar, never-got-beyond-high-school class, however. A shocking number aren’t even working at all. Many are not getting married in the first place. Of those that get married, the divorce and separation rates are soaring.

And Murray’s study leaves out blacks, Hispanics and other minorities — just so you don’t think the fundamental problem is racial or ethnic. His study focuses only on the white community.

Tyler Cowen has a completely different approach. Are your skills a complement to the computer or a substitute for it? If the former, he predicts that life for you is likely to be cheery. If the latter, life is likely to be dreary. “This is the wave that will lift you or that will dump you,” he says.

So what can be done about any of this? Virtually no one has a compelling solution. And there may be no solution.

The only new idea the left seems to have is universal preschool. (They don’t know how to reform any existing programs, so why not throw money after one more?) But the more common tactic (e.g., Paul Krugman) is to use inequality as an excuse for enacting the traditional liberal agenda — deficit spending, minimum wage increase, more unemployment compensation. If you think any of that is going to solve the fundamental problem, I know a bridge in Brooklyn that is for sale.

[And,] if your goal is class warfare — to inflame the passions of those who have less by making them angry at those who have more — writing about the behavioral causes of poverty does not advance your cause.

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