One reason for rising inequality


It is undoubtedly true that inequality among household incomes has been rising in recent decades. It's also similarly true that this has been a worldwide phenomenon. That's the simple part: what we might want to do about it, if anything, is more difficult.

There are those like myself who don't see inequality, at least not at extremes, as being particularly a problem: similarly there are those, not like myself, who see inequality as a problem in and of itself, one that must be addressed. But for both groups (and any other variations on the theme) perhaps the most important question is why is inequality rising: that will help to determine whether we view it as benign or not.

If, for example, the children of the poor and or unfavoured are left to the tender mercies of an appalling state education system while others can escape it, then I might, despite not worrying much about inequality, argue that we should improve the state education system while an egalitarian might have even more reason to do so. But what if the reason for (at least some) of this rise in inequality is something more complex?

Like 36 percent of American academics (according to the Stanford report), I myself am half of an academic couple. A historian of France by training, I met and married my wife, an immunologist, when I was an assistant professor and she was a postdoc at the same institution.

A two professor household, even in the US, does not have an income to scare Bill Gates: but it's well up there in the top 5% or so of the income distribution. And of course it's not just something that affects academic couples: this is going on right across the society.

It's what is known as assortive mating (or assortative, to taste) and it's a result of that complex mixture of things we might call female economic empowerment. The pill has meant fertility is by and large controlled, the near vanishing of heavy physical labour from the economy has meant that women finally, for the first time ever in the history of the species perhaps, can at least potentially be looking for jobs on a level playing field and both of those together have led to much later ages of marriage. That last from roughly early 20s only a few short decades ago to 30 ish now for most.

That in turn has meant that we tend not to choose our mates from those we know through family or friends, nor from those we were at a socially mixed school with. We tend now to choose from those we work with. There's nothing either good or bad about this (although Simon Baron Cohen has been known to use it as an explanation for the rise in autism) but an inevitable side effect is that household incomes will become more unequal. For we'll end up with, as we very much did not those few decades ago, with dual professional income households, dual white collar income households and dual blue collar income households (and even dual no income households, although the "dual" seems to be noticeably lacking there).

What we do about the inequality caused by this is, well, what do we do? Even if we wanted to do anything? Insist that newly qualifed lawyers only date cleaners?

We might also point out that increased inequality isn't a result of either "neo-liberalism" or of political action in the UK: it's both global and related to much deeper changes in the underlying society.

But the most basic point is that which I've repeatedly adviocated applying to things like the gender pay gap. Unless we dig deep and find out what is really causing the changes we note and possibly disapprove of, then we've absolutely no chance whatsoever of either deciding what we should do about them or even whether we should attempt to do anything.