The Great Divergence
Entry 3: The argument about inequality seems a bit too easy to me.
Photograph by Comstock.
I was interested that you brought Charles Murray's book up, because it sometimes seems to me that we're having two separate inequality conversations in this country. After a long period during which conservatives generally denied that inequality was even rising, most of the smart ones are now willing to acknowledge that the data says what it says. But the predominant focus in Murray, and also in David Brooks' columns and elsewhere on the right, has to do with the gap between college-educated professionals and the working class. In liberal circles, you're more likely to hear about the 99 percent and the 1 percent.
It gets very easy for me to become cynical about these points of emphasis. The conservative writers seem to be sycophants to the 1 percent, assuring the investment bankers and hedge fund managers of the world that they have nothing to do with the plight of the American worker—that it can all be laid at the feet of ineffective middle-school teachers and lazy principals. On the other hand, a lot of the progressive types who complain most about inequality seem to be relatively well-compensated professionals who are rather conveniently trying to redefine an egalitarian economic agenda in such a way as to include someone at the, say, 85th percentile of the income distribution as one of the oppressed.
It's all a bit too easy for everyone involved. But for my part, no matter how long I stare at the charts, I can't quite decide how I think the two forms of inequality relate to each other. Is the 1 percent’s pulling away from the pack unrelated to the diverging fates of the college-educated and the working class, or is there some underlying trend driving both factors? And do we really care about dragging the top 1 percent back down to earth, or elevating median incomes?