Sunday, November 30, 2014

Bruenig on Inequality

While Matt Bruening has attracted notice in recent days for his column making the sensational claim, in the context of recent events in Ferguson, that riots are good, it's the bracing honesty in his post earlier this month on inequality that I find more noteworthy. Frankly, a more unadulterated view of the lefty position on inequality will be hard to find. Rather than go through the whole thing, I'd like to just focus on a few key parts. First up:
[The distribution of market income] is not at all what people are worried about in most inequality circles. The concern that income inequality hurts the living standards of the poor and middle class is not implicitly about inequality produced by markets. The concern is that high disposable income inequality (relative to other countries) is strong suggestive evidence that the bottom and middle could be made better off by increasing taxes and transfers. That is to say, where disposable income inequality is high, that suggests there is money out there going to the rich that could be hoovered up and shot out to the non-rich.
It doesn't get much more plain-spoken than this, with an approach that can essentially be boiled down to "these people have a lot of money, these other people don't have that much, so we should take from this group and give to that group." In fact, it's not terribly far removed from certain Marxist dogma.

Notice that completely absent from the argument is any conditional or moral component, with seemingly all non-rich people deserving of money belonging to the rich regardless of individual circumstances. All that is apparently required to justify a wealth transfer is one person having less than another. Thus, someone who has diligently worked to start a successful business that produces useful products or services for the rest of society -- and is well compensated for that effort -- is presumably obligated to transfer some of their earnings to an NBA star who blew through tens of millions of dollars on frivolities and is left with nothing (an admittedly extreme scenario used to illustrate the point). 

There is apparently no place for the role of life choices and decisions in assessing need or the moral claim to someone else's money. That's interesting because later in his piece Bruenig provides this chart:

As can be seen, even in Scandinavia there is a high correlation between single motherhood and pre-transfer poverty rates. Thus, it would seem that if the left and income inequality worriers more generally were truly concerned with reducing both poverty and income inequality that they should be among the fiercest critics of single motherhood. Yet how often does one encounter members of the left inveighing against single motherhood and advocating for being in a stable long-term relationship before having children (indeed, Bruenig's wife recently critiqued Rod Dreher for having the temerity to characterize the decision to have multiple children out of wedlock as foolish)? While many on the left have a great affinity for Scandinavia and its envious social indicators, almost invariably unremarked upon is the role of behavior in such outcomes. As Tino Sanandaji has noted, only about 3% of children in Sweden are born to single mothers.

One could almost be forgiven for thinking the left is only concerned about poverty reduction to the extent it involves an expansion of the state and/or confiscating wealth from the well-off. 

Bruenig, meanwhile, concludes his piece on this note:
The concern about inequality has very little to do with the market distribution itself (the market is, after all, just a creature of policy, a government program like any other). Rather, the concern is that high and rising inequality signals that we are throwing away opportunities to relieve the want and humiliation of the bottom (and to a lesser extent, the middle), and are opting instead to shovel more and more of the national income to the rich for no good reason.
There are some amazing assertions made here:
  • The market is a government program, apparently because it is subject to government policy. By the same logic, since our lives are also subject to government policy then life itself can be considered to be one big government program.
  • It is desirable to relieve the want of the bottom (which for most humans is almost endless). We've seemingly moved beyond needs -- a tacit admission that they have largely been satisfied? 
  • Apparently money is not earned by people nor has much to do with things like effort and individual decision-making, but rather is obtained by luck or the operation of a great cosmic shovel which allocates large amounts of money to some people but not others on a mysterious basis. 
  • There is no good reason for the rich to gain additional money. The fact that they may have that money because of contributions made to society via products, services and/or investments is left unexplored. 
The inequality agenda isn't about the creation of more opportunity. It isn't about ensuring the basic needs of each citizen is met. It's about redistribution for its own sake. If only the rest of the left was as unvarnished in presenting its views as Bruenig...

No comments: