Mainstream economists have gotten much better estimating the obscene levels of inequality that exist today. But imagining equality? They still find that almost impossible.
Emmanuel Saez, Gabriel Zucman, and Thomas Piketty have been at the forefront of estimating the extraordinary growth of inequality that has taken place since the late-1970s and early-1980s in the United States—when incomes for the top 10 percent grew about three times as fast as those of the bottom 90 percent, thus reversing the trend of more than three decades of the postwar period when they grew at roughly the same rate.
But then, when the BBC asked mainstream economists about the effect inequality has on growth and prosperity, well, they just can’t get themselves to imagine an equal or even a substantially less unequal distribution of income.
Deirdre McCloskey, of course, is very relaxed about inequality “as long as it’s not force or fraud that caused it.” Jared Bernstein, for his part, just wants a better balance between productivity and incomes for middle-class families. And then there’s Jonathan Ostry, who is worried about opportunity and not inequality, and Branko Milanovic, who think we need inequality to provide incentives.
And there, in one package, we have all the ways mainstream economists demonstrate their long-held justification of inequality and their profound inability to imagine an equal distribution of income. Basically, for them, inequality is not a problem and equality is not the goal—because capitalism alone is capable of producing growth (McCloskey); even the levels of inequality we saw in the late-1970s (when the top 1 percent captured about 10 percent of all income) are too high a goal (Bernstein); inequality is not a problem as long as there are “adequate opportunities for the less well-off in society” (Ostry); and, finally, because inequality has always existed (Milanovic).
Milanovic, at least, imagines there might be problems down the road:
“If the gaps keep on increasing as they’ve increased in the last 20 years, you would end up with two types of societies within a single country. If there is no sufficient middle class and if the poor really are very far from the rich, then you really cannot speak of a single society.
“We could end up with a kind of a global plutocracy, this global one per cent or even half a per cent that are very similar among themselves, but really belong to different nations.”
But, basically, all of them, along with most other mainstream economists, take the world as it is—based on capitalist commodity production—as normal, such that inequality is either benign (it’s what we get in exchange for more stuff) or necessary (as the condition for getting people to work).
And they simply can’t imagine anything like what the rest of us envision: a world in which we have eliminated the obscene levels of inequality that current economic arrangements are creating.