The Oligarchy Fallacy

CAMBRIDGE – Income inequality has received a lot of attention lately, particularly in two arenas where it previously received little: American public debate and the International Monetary Fund. A major reason is concern in the United States that income inequality has returned to Gilded Age extremes; but inequality has increased in many other parts of the world as well, and remains high in Latin America.

What have we learned so far? Perhaps what is most interesting about the current discussion is that much of the focus has been on the consequences of inequality beyond its adverse effect on the welfare of the poor.

One such avenue of debate starts from the hypothesis that inequality is bad for overall economic growth. Another begins with the view that inequality leads to volatility and instability. Did inequality cause, for example, the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 and hence the global financial crisis of 2008?

A third proposition is that inequality translates into envy and unhappiness: someone who would have been happy at a given income is unhappy if he discovers that others are getting more. A persuasive version of this claim holds that top executives demand and receive outlandish compensation not because they value the money so much, but because they compete with each other for status.