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A Convenient Way To Promote Happiness

Who Cares About Inequality?

Why the super-rich are suddenly so concerned about inequality…

Lloyd Blankfein is worried about inequality. The CEO of Goldman Sachs—that American Almighty, who swindled the economy and walked off scot-free— sees new “divisions” in the country. “Too much,” Blankfein lamented in 2014, “has gone to too few people.”

Charles Koch is worried, too. Another great American plutocrat—shepherd of an empire that rakes in $115 billion and spits out $200 million in campaign contributions each year—decried in 2015 the “welfare for the rich” and the formation of a “permanent underclass.”  “We’re headed for a two-tiered society,” Koch warned.

Their observations join a chorus of anti-inequality advocacy among the global elite. The World Bank called inequality a “powerful threat to global progress.” The International Monetary Fund claimed it was “not a recipe for stability and sustainability” —threat-level red for the IMF. And the World Economic Forum, gathered together at Davos last year, described inequality as the single greatest global threat.

It is a stunning consensus. In Zuccotti Park, the cry of the 99% was an indictment. To acknowledge the existence of the super-rich was to incite class warfare. Not so today. Ted Cruz, whom the Kochs have described as a ‘hero’, railed against an economy where wealthy Americans “have gotten fat and happy.” He did so on Fox News.

What the hell is happening here? Why do so many rich people care so much about inequality? And why now?

The timing of the elite embrace of the anti-inequality agenda presents a puzzle precisely because it is so long overdue.

For decades, political economists have struggled to understand why inequality has remained uncontested all this time. Their workhorse game theoretic model, developed in the early 1980s by Allan Meltzer and Scott Richard, predicts that democracies respond to an increase in inequality with an increase in top-rate taxation—a rational response of the so-called ‘median voter.’

And yet, the relationship simply does not hold in the real world. On the contrary, in the United States, we find its literal inverse: amid record high inequality, one of the largest tax cuts in history. This inverted relationship is known as the Robin Hood Paradox.

One explanation of this paradox is the invisibility of the super-rich. On the one hand, they hide in their enclaves: the hills, the Hamptons, Dubai, the Bahamas. In the olden days, the poor were forced to bear witness to royal riches, standing roadside as the chariot moved through town. Today, they live behind high walls in gated communities and private islands. Their wealth is obscured from view, stashed offshore and away from the tax collector. This is wealth as exclusion.

On the other, they hide among us. As Rachel Sherman has recently argued, conspicuous consumption is out of fashion, displaced by an encroaching “moral stigma of privilege” that won’t let the wealthy just live. Not long ago, the rich felt comfortable riding down broad boulevards in stretch limousines and fur coats. Today, they remove price tags from their groceries and complain about making ends meet. This is wealth as assimilation.

The result is a general misconception about the scale of inequality in America. According to one recent study, Americans tend to think that the ratio of CEO compensation to average income is 30-to-1. The actual figures are 350-to-1.

Yet this is only a partial explanation of the Robin Hood Paradox. It is an appealing theory, but I find it doubtful that any public revelation of elite lifestyles would drive these elites to call for reform. It would seem a difficult case to make after the country elected a man to highest office that lives in a golden penthouse of a skyscraper bearing his own name in the middle of the most expensive part of America’s most expensive city.

“I love all people,” President Trump promised at a rally last June. “But for these posts”—the posts in his cabinet—“I just don’t want a poor person.” The crowd cheered loudly. The state of play of the American pitchfork is determined in large part by this very worldview—and the three myths about the rich and poor that sustain it.

The first is the myth of the undeserving poor. American attitudes to inequality are deeply informed by our conception of the poor as lazy. In Why Americans Hate Welfare, Martin Gilens examines the contrast between Americans’ broad support for social spending and narrow support for actually existing welfare programs. The explanation, Gilens argues, is that Americans view the poor as scroungers—a view forged by racial representations of welfare recipients in our media.

In contrast—and this is the second myth—Americans believe in the possibility of their own upward mobility. Even if they are not rich today, they will be rich tomorrow. And even if they are not rich tomorrow, their children will be rich the next day. In a recent survey experiment, respondents overestimated social mobility in the United States by over 20%. It turns out that the overestimation is quite easy to provoke: researchers simply had to remind the participants of their own ‘talents’ in order to boost their perceptions of class mobility. Such a carrot of wealth accumulation has been shown to exert a downward pressure on Americans’ preferences for top-rate taxation.

But the third myth, and perhaps most important, concerns the wealthy. For many years, this was called trickle-down economics. Inequality was unthreatening because of our faith that the wealth at the top would—some way or another—reach the bottom. The economic science was questionable, but cultural memories lingered around a model of paternalistic capitalism that suggested its truth. The old titans of industry laid railroads, made cars, extracted oil. Company towns sprouted across the country, where good capitalists took care of good workers.

But the myth of trickling wealth has become difficult to sustain. Over the last half-century, while productivity has soared, average wages among American workers have grown by just 0.2% each year—while those at the very top grew 138%. Only half of Republicans still believe that trimming taxes for the rich leads to greater wealth for the general population. Only 13% of Democrats do.

Declining faith in trickle-down economics, however, does not necessarily imply declining reverence for the wealthy. 43% of Americans today still believe that the rich are more intelligent than the average American, compared to just 8% that believe they are less. 42% of Americans still believe that the rich are more hardworking than the average, compared to just 24 that believe they are less.

It would seem, therefore, that the trickle-down myth has been displaced by another, perhaps more obstinate myth of the 1% innovator.

The 1% innovator is a visionary: with his billions, he dreams up new and exciting ideas for the twenty-first century. Steve Jobs was one; Elon Musk is another. Their money is not idle—it is fodder for that imagination. As the public sector commitment to futurist innovation has waned—as NASA, for example, has shrunk and shriveled—his role has become even more important. Who else will take us to Mars?

The reality, of course, is that our capitalists are anything but innovative. They’re not even paternal. In fact, they are not really capitalists at all. They are mostly rentiers: rather than generate wealth, they simply extract it from the economy. Consider the rapid rise in real estate investment among the super-rich. Since the financial crash, a toxic mix of historically low interest rates and sluggish growth have encouraged international investors to turn toward the property market, which promises to deliver steady if moderate returns. Among the Forbes 400 “self-made” billionaires, real estate ranks third. Investments and technology—two other rentier industries—rank first and second, respectively.

But the myth of the 1% innovator is fundamental to the politics of inequality, because it suspends public demands for wealth taxation. If the innovators are hard at work, and they need all that capital to design and bring to life the consumer goodies that we enjoy, then we should hold off on serious tax reform and hear them out. Or worse: we should cheer on their wealth accumulation, waiting for the next, more expensive rabbit to be pulled from the hat. The revolt from below can be postponed until tomorrow or the next day.

All together, the enduring strength of these myths only serves to deepen the puzzle of elite anti-inequality advocacy. Why the sudden change of heart? Why not keep promoting the myths and playing down the scale of the “two-tiered society” that Charles Koch today decries?

The unfortunate answer, I believe, is that inequality has simply become bad economics. For decades, the dismal science waved its hands around the question of inequality. At worst, it was seen as an unfortunate by-product of development, a transitional phase along the Kuznets curve. At best, it was seen as a necessary incentive for the working class. Without the carrot of vast wealth accumulation, who would innovate?

Over the last decade, the academic tide has turned. Recent studies at the IMF and OECD have concluded that high levels of inequality hurt economic growth. They estimate a 6 to 9% reduction in American and British growth rates in the last 20 years as a result of rising inequality—in other words, falling by half. Such a drastic decline in developmental prospects has motivated both agencies to adopt pro-equity policy programs. “In It Together,” cheers a 2015 OECD report.

Looking closely into this literature, though, we find that most of the analysis isn’t really about inequality at all. The mechanisms that link inequality to growth are, instead, actually about deprivation. Consider the challenge of “human capital accumulation.” Many analysts suggest that inequality hurts growth because poor individuals will choose not to invest in education if it is too expensive for them to afford. Encouraging human capital accumulation is fundamentally not about taming inequality, per se, but about building effective and accessible systems of education. The same is true about health, the other key mechanism in the inequality-meets-growth literature. Poor health means poor economic performance. But improving health outcomes does not necessarily require inequality reduction at all.

We could leave it there. If deprivation is the problem, we might reason, then we should focus on deprivation. No need to run on about the new Gilded Age. Poverty is simple. We can fix it. And we should. To fill out the subtitle of the OECD’s report, “Less Inequality Benefits All.”

But these reforms still leave the basic structure of our political economy unchanged. When workers have better health care, Google will still be Google, and Goldman will still be Goldman. They will still be too big to fail and impossible to jail.

No, the program of poverty reduction advocated by America’s business elite would not hurt profit margins. On the contrary, it will grow them. Such was Henry Ford’s insight a century ago, when he advocated for decent wages on the grounds that people needed money to buy his cars. Poverty is not bad because it is poverty. Poverty is bad for business.

Read this way, the inequality agenda reveals its conservative core. Tackling inequality, for the elites that are fighting to do so, is not about sacrifice on the part of the rich. It is about making sure that the tide that lifted their boats leaks through the dam to lift those of the poor, as well.

The poor are most definitely not poor because the rich are rich,” writes Warren Buffett, a leading billionaire critic of inequality, in the Wall Street Journal. “Nor are the rich undeserving. Most of them have contributed brilliant innovations or managerial expertise to America’s well-being.”

It seems, then, that arrival of the anti-inequality agenda does not coincide with some moral awakening. On the contrary, much of the energy behind this new movement flows from fear. High levels of inequality threaten to foment resentment among the working classes. And high levels of working class resentment threaten to confiscate the resources that the super-rich have captured through their brilliant innovations. “I see pitchforks,” warned tech investor Nick Hanauer, in a 2014 letter to his ‘fellow Zillionaires.’

It’s a familiar scene, historically speaking. In Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, set in the Risorgimento, a prince confronts the forces of unification in Sicily in the nineteenth century and laments the decline of the dignified feudal order. “For everything to stay the same,” his nephew suggests to him, “everything must change.”

And so super-rich are beginning to realize. The premise of the elite embrace of the anti-inequality agenda is that “the pitchforks are coming.” But the promise of the anti-inequality agenda is to fine-tune the status quo to preserve the pecking order. “It’s not just that we’ll escape with our lives,” Hanauer writes. “It’s that we’ll most certainly get even richer.”

Here is $100,000:

$10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000

Here is $1,000,000:

$10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000

Here is $10,000,000:

$10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000

I will spare you $100 million — and the literal hundreds of pages it would take to reach $1 billion. But it’s a powerful exercise, I believe, because we all know exactly what we would do with $10,000: we would pay student loans, we would pay medical bills, we would save toward a mortgage. And we can see, from the piles of $10,000 that compose these larger figures, just how many “good” and “decent” lives can fit into the fortunes of the extremely wealthy.

I think we all recognize the injustice of this exercise, even the super-rich. It is why they rely so heavily on those myths of hard work and dessert. If, as Warren Buffett insists, the rich have made their contribution to society —innovation and philanthropic donation — then they need not be haunted by the persistence of poverty at the bottom.

I do not make this point lightly or cheekily. Wealth in the midst of poverty can induce a form of vertigo: looking down from the cliff, it is difficult to stand straight on one’s feet. We all tell ourselves stories as a defense against this destabilizing effect. Or — as is the case in most American cities — we segregate ourselves, hide in our enclaves, to avoid these confrontations all together.

But that feeling of vertigo suggests that inequality matters not because it hurts our growth prospects. Indeed, I do not propose some magic ratio for an equitable society. As conservative commentators like to point out, we would surely prefer to live in a rich but unequal society than to live in egalitarian squalor. Fair point.

Inequality matters instead because, in our societies — as they actually exist — the poor still suffer on account of their poverty while the rich spend money on stupid shit. Or, more accurately, workers still toil while rentiers extract their gains, and then spend that money on stupid shit.

Inevitably, the unequal distribution of resources creates a vicious cycle, guaranteeing opportunity to the existing rich while depriving it to the existing poor. Money, we all accept, is power. Inequality is therefore domination. And domination is not democratic.

This is why the program of poverty reduction advocated by the anti-inequality elite is fundamentally insufficient. Without curbing the accumulation of the rich, improving the lot of the poor can do little to rebalance our politics and ensure equality of prospects for human flourishing. The insistence on pursing a “win-win” strategy of poverty reduction obscures these more conflictual class dynamics.

Perhaps, then, we should drop the word all together to focus on a more fundamental concept in play here — that of power. The problem with the elite anti-inequality agenda is that it is fundamentally about the preservation of power. The progressive agenda, instead, must begin from the premise of redistributing that power. This involves progressive taxation, sure. But it extends to a much wider range of policies, laws, and institutions. Only this comprehensive evaluation can set out the terms of the inequality debate, forcing the anti-inequality elite not only to soften the consequences of inequality but to redress its causes. Because everything must change, and nothing should stay the same.

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