It’s almost impossible to open a newspaper these days without being reminded that inequality has grown in recent decades. The reactions to the stated rise do vary, that is true: from it being an unfortunate side effect of growth or globalisation in general to proof positive that we’ll all be murdered in our beds when the rabble realise how badly they’re being treated.
Will Wilkinson at Cato has a paper out which covers much of the extended conversation and I think’s he’s right in that inequality simply hasn’t grown as much as some say:
To put if more breezily, if cheap stuff gets better faster than expensive stuff, the gap between cheap and expensive stuff narrows, which in turn narrows the gap in the quality of life between rich and poor.
There’s a great deal to this: as he says, there’s a difference between an expensive car and a cheap one but that gap is as nothing to the one between having a car and using Shank’s Pony. Or between an expensive fridge, a cheap one and none.
It’s very definitely true that income inequality has risen in recent decades: but much much harder to insist that consumption inequality has done. As an example, there are certainly differences in diet between the rich and the poor in the UK: but it’s only in the last 50 years or so that all, of whatever station in life, are financially able to eat a full and balanced diet. We no longer have the height inequality we did (reflecting again nutrition, where the rich were substantially taller than the poor), nor the health care inequality and while education is rightly a bone of contention we’ve certainly advanced from the medieval idea that only the male rich or the clergy might be literate or numerate.
What makes this oversight from certain on the left so puzzling is that they are exactly the people who have been telling us for years that there is much more to life than simply grabbing for the filthy lucre. That health, enjoyment, leisure are also important, perhaps more so than money. Anyone with an adult and rounded view of life would have to agree with that sentiment, that there’s more to it all than simply pilng up the pounds. Which makes it all the more puzzling that there is so much vituperation over inequality rising in that most trivial of things, mere cash, while all the other historically extant inequalites have been shrinking.