From 1993 to 2010, the incomes of the richest 1 percent of Americans grew 58 percent while the rest had a 6.4 percent increase. In 2010, the first year of an economic recovery, the top 1 percent of Americans captured 93% of the income gains. Beyond the danger to the American republics in there being an economic elite so far removed from the vast majority of the population is the question of whether the trend is baleful, economically speaking. It is not clear that even such an income gain being snagged by so few registered in the minds of the general populous as a problem. The key to any concern would seem to be whether opportunity for the many is compromised as a result of extreme economic inequality.
In 2011, inequality was not exactly the top priority of American voters: only 17 percent thought it is extremely important for the government to try to reduce income and wealth inequality, according to a Gallup survey. That is about half the percent who said reigniting economic growth was crucial. However, 29 percent said it was extremely important for the government to increase equality of opportunity. More significant, 41 percent said that there was not much opportunity in America, up from 17 percent in 1998. The question is whether the concurrent increase in economic inequality was viewed as causing the decrease in opportunity. According to David Hume’s naturalist fallacy, a correlation does not itself mean a causal relationship exists. The fact that economic inequality was increasing as opportunity was decreasing does not in itself mean that the increasing inequality was reducing opportunity. There might be a causal relationship, but more is needed to support it than a correlation.
According to the New York Times, comparisons across countries “suggest a fairly strong, negative link between the level of inequality and the odds of advancement across the generations. The link makes sense: a big income gap is likely to open up other social breaches that make it tougher for those lower down the rungs to get ahead. And that is exactly what appears to be happening in the United States, where a narrow elite is peeling off from the rest of society by a chasm of wealth, power and experience.” Additionally, that elite can use its wealth as power to reserve the opportunities itself. For instance, donations to universities (and lobbying government officials) could be used to keep financial-aid-based admissions down to a certain level such that there are plenty of spots available for children of the well-off. Appeals seemingly in the interest of the masses can even be utilized, as in wanting to reduce subsidized student loan programs because students are suffering from too much debt.
In my view, the business-government dynamic is crucial to why increasing economic inequality is harmful both politically and economically. Minimizing the harm to reduced opportunity ignores the injustice that comes with the inequality itself. Wealth can easily be made into power, which in turn can be used in political, economic and societal realms in self-serving ways. The primacy of opportunity assumes that anyone can be rich if he or she just works hard enough. Both on account of the way the system is designed and the differences between people, not everyone will succeed even if given the opportunity.
Furthermore, conditioning one’s objection to economic inequality in society on whether one’s opportunity is affected can be viewed as self-centered as well as rather narrow because one is indifferent to the negative effects of the inequality on others apart from any decreased opportunity as long as one believes that one’s own opportunity is not adversely affected. Put another way, too many Americans are willing to look the other way on how the elite can unfairly use their advantage aside from restricting opportunity. The right of the elite to so much wealth is tacitly acknowledged as long as opportunity is still thought to exist. As long as it does, society has no right to take from the rich even if they compromise the republics themselves. This is a very minimalist notion of social contract—one that the 1% benefit from. This is hardly an accident—political ideology established in society being in the interest of the relatively few beneficiaries of the vast majority of income gain.
Therefore, whether increasing economic inequality causes less opportunity for the masses is a question that can be relegated to the more important question of whether the inequality itself is inherently unfair and/or a threat to the republics, the economy, and even society. How the wealth has been and is gained as well as used are relevant to the ethical question of fairness, and thus to whether the concentration of wealth is legitimate. Crucially, a focus on opportunity misses this point. Besides its ethical dimension, absolute or relative economic inequality could be harmful in building up pressure of resentment and even revolution, as evinced in the Occupy Wall Street Movement (which has been safely marginalized—with its own complicity). As the interests of the elite and the masses diverge and the elite (e.g., Goldman Sachs) gains more and more power, the strangling of the lower and lower-middle classes may ensue—a development that could not be good for a society’s stability. A focus on opportunity recalibrated in terms of being promoted to manage a McDonalds’ restaurant misses this point. In short, we are missing the iceberg coming up in front of our ship because we are satisfied if we can still get a deck chair.
Eduardo Porter, “Inequality Undermines Democracy,” The New York Times, March 21, 2012.