What Should We Do About the Income Gap?

Published February 19, 2007

One expects the political left to point to income inequality as a defect of our capitalist system. But when President George W. Bush expresses alarm over a “growing income inequality gap” and urges corporations to rethink the compensation packages they offer to top executives, we would be wise to pay attention.

In the past 15 years, incomes in each of the five quintiles (i.e., 20 percent shares of the population) tracked by the government rose in real, inflation-adjusted dollars. Incomes in the top quintile rose by slightly more than 20 percent. Incomes in the bottom quintile rose by 21 percent. Incomes in the middle quintiles rose between 13 percent and 20 percent. So, in terms of purchasing power, every income grouping gained ground.

Of course, a 20 percent gain on a million-dollar income is a gain of $200,000. A 20 percent gain on a $10,000 income is a gain of $2,000. As a result, the gap between these two income levels has widened by $198,000. This mathematical calculation feeds the indignation of those whose political ideal is focused on equality. For them it is not enough that all are better off if the result is greater inequality.

America has already taken substantial measures to boost the chances of those not born to wealth. A free education is provided to all through grade 12. Scholarships based on need are available for those able to handle a college education. Student loans are available at favorable rates for those who don’t land a scholarship. A poor person with talent can make use of this education to improve his lot in life.

Education, though, cannot overcome all inequalities. Talent is unequally distributed. A person may inherit a low IQ through no fault of his own. He may lack the motor skills or good looks essential to success in other fields. He may, in fact, turn out to be an average person who ends up in an average job at an average rate of pay. This is the fate of the vast majority of us.

America also has a social safety net providing basic necessities for those unable to earn their own way. Persons incapable of performing an average job do not starve to death, dressed in rags, and shivering in the cold unless they refuse the help offered by government and charities. Nevertheless, they are still going to be in the lowest income quintile.

What more could be done to reduce inequalities? Those railing against income inequality often suggest penalties and regulations to keep the upper echelons down. Caps on incomes and taxes on “excessive” earnings are frequently advocated. The problem with this punitive approach, though, is it will likely slow the rate of economic growth.

The carrot of profit and financial return is what motivates the talented to undertake the efforts and bear the risks that lead to economic growth. The fabulous standard of living we enjoy today isn’t because average people are devotedly putting in a full day’s work. It’s because extraordinarily talented individuals have invented better products and more efficient ways of producing them.

Does this mean there are never errors resulting in undeserved rewards for corporate executives? Of course not. However, while it may be easy to spot the errors in hindsight, it is not so easy to spot them ahead of time.

It is implausible in the extreme to place our faith in government’s foresight in this matter. Government has no special expertise along these lines. If it did, societies like Cuba that rely heavily upon government to make economic decisions would be models of prosperity instead of the impoverished prisons they are.

The vast majority of us are the beneficiaries of the genius of a talented minority. We ought not allow envy of their rewards lead us to tie down the golden geese with taxes and regulations and thereby reduce their incentives to continue laying golden eggs. Doing so will hurt us more than it will hurt them.

John Semmens ([email protected]) is an economist and policy advisor to The Heartland Institute.