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Getting the Inequality We Want

Far from establishing – or even debating – a specific level to which to reduce inequality, politicians continue to allow it to rise. This will change only when policymakers treat inequality more like GDP growth, health care, or climate-change mitigation: as the subject of serious debate and concrete action.

AMSTERDAM – Everyone, it seems, is talking about inequality. Media outlets publish article after article on the topic. Politicians include it in their speeches and platforms. Yet, even though economists like Thomas Piketty and Joseph E. Stiglitz have proved, through meticulous research, the causal link between inequality and policy choices, politicians have yet to establish what level of inequality they consider ideal.

Eliminating inequality, after all, is not the point. Too much inequality impedes social mobility, thereby potentially stoking political instability; as Stiglitz has often pointed out, it also tends to lead to weaker economic performance. Yet some amount of inequality is vital to create appropriate incentives, support competition, and provide reasonable rewards. That is why it is important to define what level of inequality is fair, and work actively to achieve it.

Whatever that level is, it seems clear it is lower than the actual level of inequality in much of the world today. Yet, far from establishing – or even debating – a specific target level to which to reduce inequality, politicians continue to allow it to rise. This will change only when policymakers treat inequality more like GDP growth, health care, or climate-change mitigation: as the subject of serious debate and concrete action.

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