Raise, Don’t Level: New CEI Papers on Inequality and Poverty Relief

Economic inequality is one of today’s defining issues. How to address it? Iain Murray and I offer an unconventional approach in a new two-part CEI study, released today. The first part frames the issue. The title sums it up well enough: People, Not Ratios: Why the Debate over Income Inequality Asks the Wrong Questions. The second part,The Rising Tide: Answering the Right Questions in the Inequality Debate, outlines a concrete policy agenda to make the poor better off.

Anti-poverty activists routinely fret about the ratio between a CEO’s salary and her lowest-paid employee’s, or how the top one percent’s ratio of national income compares to the bottom one percent’s. Instead of mathematical ratios, we encourage activists to focus on human beings. Again, we plead: focus on people, not ratios.

Ratio-obsessed activists from Thomas Piketty to Naomi Klein ignore some obvious questions due to their monomania:

  • How are the poor actually doing?
  • Is their economic situation improving over time?
  • What policies can make the global poor better off over time?

We seek to fill these disappointing gaps. According to nearly all available data, poor people are better off than ever before in human history—keep at it, then! There is still lots to do, but ignoring the accomplishments people have already made, and what can make more accomplishments possible, only hurts the poor.

Over the course of the 20th century, infant mortality went down by more than 90 percent—just think of how many parents’ broken hearts have stayed whole thanks to modern technology and sanitary practices.

Life expectancy improved by 30 years during the 20th century. And that’s not the only type of length modernity has improved: from 1900 to 1950, the average American became three inches taller, thanks to better nutrition, food security, and health care. The process has only continued since then.

Even if it was only the top one percent that enjoyed zero infant mortality, lived a hundred years, and were all seven feet tall, their best efforts could not bias society-wide statistics nearly that much, despite their most conspiratorial plutocratic efforts. This is what mass prosperity looks like.

According to the Swedish economist Max Roser, since 1960 the number of people living in absolute poverty has declined from nearly two billion to about 700 million—a two-thirds decline. And this happened as total world population more than doubled! This is good news. Today’s most important task is to keep this great enrichment going, and to eliminate absolute poverty altogether.

The poor will never have as much as the rich—every curve has a bottom and a top ten percent, and always will. No changing that. But only the hardest heads deny that most poor people today live better lives than their parents or grandparents did—and that future generations can expect this wonderful trajectory to continue, if they’re allowed to.

This is both a reason to celebrate, and a reason to double down. Now that we haveasked the right questions about inequality, the second part of our study, The Rising Tide, seeks to answer them: what policies can continue to make the world’s poor better off?

There are a lot of answers. We don’t pretend to have all of them, but we offer a few. One is an honest price system: runaway-inflation countries such as Zimbabwe and Venezuela are universally poor. Keeping inflation in check and making sure prices convey honest information will help consumers and entrepreneurs make wise decisions that create value for people.

Affordable energy is another answer, allowing everything from clean home heating (natural gas is somewhat cleaner than dung and logs, especially indoors) to more and better transportation choices, which expands employment options.

Any aspiring entrepreneur needs access to capital—Dodd-Frank-style financial regulations openly insult every person trying to escape poverty. So do many governments’ resistance to granting formal property rights to their people.

Another answer—there really are a lot of them, and no single panacea—is occupational licensing reform. There is no legitimate reason for an interior decorator or a hair-braider to undergo hundreds of hours of training in something they already know how to do, in order to do for pay something they can do for free. Nearly a third of American workers require government permission to begin their day’s work. That is ethically wrong, and should be immediately reformed.

Inequality is a complicated issue. Properly addressing it requires both asking and answering the right questions. Ask how real-world people are doing, not abstract income ratios. And ask about policies that can help people escape poverty. The answers are numerous, and Iain’s and my papers do not pretend to have all of them.

But, we humbly submit, a general ethos of not stamping down on impoverished hands would be a good start. It would also be quite a change from current policy in the U.S. and many other countries.

For more, see our papers, People, Not Ratios: Why the Debate over Income Inequality Asks the Wrong Questions, and The Rising Tide: Answering the Right Questions in the Inequality Debate.

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