Matt Yglesias responds to Chris’s post below, by suggesting that British “lefties”’ criticisms of New Labour’s record on inequality are discredited by a Lane Kenworthy graph, which he says he’ll take as a decisive argument in favor of what he calls “progressive neo-liberalism,” “until [he sees] a rebuttal of it.” But didn’t we have a rebuttal of Yglesias’ interpretation from Brian Weatherson, the last time he was pushing this line, back in October 2010? Perhaps he found this rebuttal inadequate in some way. But even if this were so, one would have thought that Lane’s own quite specific and limited explanation of what the graph suggests – that it showed that the UK poor probably did better under Labour than they would have under the Conservatives – might have given him pause (I’m quite sure that Chris, for all his dislike of New Labour, would agree with Lane’s claim here).
I also should note that he had a go last week at John Quiggin’s arguments about inequality, where he suggested that NYU professors had it pretty good, and that:
a lot of the political dialogue I see online seems to consist of a slightly strange form of class resentment in which intellectuals, nonprofit workers, or public servants express bitterness about the high incomes of businesspeople whose lives they don’t actually envy.
I wrote a somewhat ill-tempered post in response to this, and then deleted it, because I wasn’t greatly looking forward to policing the comments section. So I’ll limit myself to saying that Yglesias’ aside certainly doesn’t do justice to the genuine and quite serious debates around inequality, which, as far as I can see, are not being driven by ‘class resentments’ but by a genuine and well-founded dismay about the current state of the US political economy. Enormous disparities of wealth help reinforce huge disparities in political power (see e.g. Bartels’ findings on how the interests of different economic segments get represented in the electoral process) in a self reinforcing cycle. That’s a problem – and it’s a particularly big problem for someone who wants to concentrate on maximizing growth first, and only on sharing out the goodies afterwards. As Cosma says in the best post on this broad set of topics that I’ve read to date.
“When you tell us that (1) the important thing is to maximize economic growth, and never mind the distributional consequences because (2) we can always redistribute through progressive taxation and welfare payments, you are assuming a miracle in step 2.” For where is the political power to enact that taxation and redistribution, and keep it going, going to come from? A sense of noblesse oblige is too much to hope for (especially given how many of our rich people have taken lots of economics courses), and, for better or worse, voluntary concessions will no longer come from fear of revolution.
To be clear – I think that Matthew Yglesias is an extremely smart and interesting writer, even when I disagree with him, as I often do. He’s a net contributor to US public debate. But when he comes up against this particular set of issues, he has an unfortunate tendency to wave difficulties in his position away by making
unsubstantiated imputations about the motives of people who bring up the problem of wealth inequality, and (update: now withdrawn – see his comment below) referring to graphs which don’t actually say what he thinks they say. I wish he’d do better.
Update – I see that Chris has also updated his post in response.