Tyler Cowen used his Upshot piece this week to tell us that the real issue is not inequality, but rather mobility. We want to make sure that our children have the opportunity to enjoy better lives than we do. And for this we should focus on productivity growth which is the main determinant of wealth in the long-run.
This piece ranks high in terms of being misleading. First, even though productivity growth has been relatively slow since 1973, the key point is that most of the population has seen few of the gains of the productivity growth that we have seen over the last forty years. Had they shared equally in the productivity gains over this period, the median wage would be close to 50 percent higher than it is today. The minimum wage would be more than twice as high. If we have more rapid productivity growth over the next four decades, but we see the top 1.0 percent again getting the same share as it has since 1980, then most people will benefit little from this growth.
The next point that comes directly from this first point is that it is far from clear that inequality does not itself impede productivity growth. While it can of course be coincidence, it is striking that the period of rapid productivity growth was a period of relative equality. At the very least it is hard to make the case that we have experienced some productivity dividend from the inequality of the post-1980 period.
And many of the policies that would most obviously promote equality also promote growth. For example, a Fed policy committed to high employment, even at the risk of somewhat higher rates of inflation, would lead to stronger wage growth at the middle and bottom of the wage ladder, while also likely leading to more investment and growth.
While Cowen talks about immigration as being a question of low-paid workers who might drive down the wages of the less-educated, they are millions of bright highly educated professionals in the developing world who would be happy to train to U.S. standards and compete with our doctors, lawyers, and other highly-paid professionals, many of whom populate the one percent. This policy would also lead to both more rapid growth and greater equality. (We can repatriate a portion of the earnings of these professionals to their home countries to ensure they benefit as well.)
And, we can have a modest financial transactions tax that would eliminate waste in the financial sector while also reducing the income of many of the richest people in the country. Were it not for the political power of Wall Street, we undoubtedly would have put in place financial transactions taxes long ago. (We do still have very small taxes that are used to finance the operation of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodities and Futures Trading Commission.)
It is also important to remember that the well-being of children depends to a large extent on the well-being of their parents. If the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity growth since 1968 (as it did between 1938 and 1968) it would be over $17 an hour today. The children of a single parent earning $34,000 a year would have much better life prospects than the children of a single parent earning $14,500 a year. In this sense there is a very direct relationship between inequality and mobility.
The long and short is that we know of many measures that can both reduce inequality and increase growth. And, if we want to make sure that everyone's children have a shot at a better standard of living in the future then we should make sure that their parents have a better standard of living today.