Prof. Kenworthy responds to Wilkinson’s essay on inequality and mostly punts. He goes after the idea that consumption inequality should matter and not income inequality. His argument basically boils down to the idea that he doesn’t think we measure consumption well. He’s right about consumption surveys missing outliers like the very very rich because they use random sampling. Also, we don’t include walks on the beach and leisure time in consumption statistics ((Wilkinson actually addresses this issue, if I remember correctly, in his recent policy paper regarding inequality. He shows data that suggests richer folks have less leisure time these days than poor.)). So, like always, we need better data.
Kenworthy’s reply doesn’t address Wilkinson’s main point about the importance of considering underlying mechanisms. He does list some bad things that could, might be, maybe be related to income inequality, but he doesn’t give any reason — besides listing them in a article about inequality — to make us think they are related to inequality.
And in a strange twist, he ends his comment saying the real problem is “poverty” and not income inequality at all:
Imagine an America in which high-quality public services raise the consumption floor to a high level: most citizens can put their kids in high-quality child care followed by good public schooling and affordable access to a good college; they have access to good health care throughout life; they can get to or near work on clean and efficient public transportation or roads with limited congestion; they enjoy clean and safe neighborhoods, parks, roads, museums, libraries, and other public spaces; they have low-cost access to information, communication, and entertainment via reliable high-speed broadband; they have four weeks of paid vacation each year, an additional week or so of paid sickness leave, and a year of paid family leave to care for a child or other needy relative. Even if the degree of income inequality were no less than today and we still had CEOs, financiers, and entertainers raking in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in a single year, that society would be markedly less unequal than our current one.
I put poverty in scare quotes because its clear he’s not talking about Dickensian/sub-Saharan African poverty, but a relative sort. Its true that I like it better, and apparently so does Kenworthy, when the folks in my community consume at a similar level of quantity and quality as me, but that they don’t isn’t necessarily, in such a rich society, a sign that they aren’t able to do so. People that aren’t me have weird tastes and that drives them to do weird stuff that I wouldn’t do. They’re not poor because of it, just weird. And any case, what does “poverty” or poverty have to do with inequality?