Will Soaking the Rich Fail?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 20, 2011

Here’s hoping. Charles Lane provides hope:

Maybe Americans are Okunites — as in Arthur Okun, the late Yale economist and author of the 1975 book, “Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff.”

Okun saw free markets as a source of unparalleled human progress — and of big gaps between rich and poor. Indeed, he argued, markets are efficient partly becausethey distribute economic rewards unevenly. Government should try to smooth out income stratification, but such efforts risk undermining incentives to work and invest.

Hence the “big trade-off”: channeling income from rich to poor, Okun wrote, was like trying to carry water in a leaky bucket. He wanted to move money from rich to poor without “leaking” so much economic growth that the whole process became self-defeating.

The American public intuitively shares Okun’s concerns. Consider the responses to another question in the Gallup poll. Asked to rate the importance of alternative federal policies, the public saw both economic growth and redistribution as worthy objectives — but put the former well ahead of the latter. Some 82 percent said growth was either “extremely” or “very” important; only 46 percent said “reduc[ing] the income and wealth gap between rich and poor” was “extremely” or “very” important.

In short, the public wants fairness but retains a healthy skepticism about the federal government’s ability to achieve it.

As such, Gallup’s numbers do not bode well for President Obama’s effort, launched in a Dec. 6 speech at Osawatomie, Kan., to win reelection as a soak-the-rich populist.

The president, like Okun, acknowledged that the free market created “prosperity and a standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.” But he explained the recent rise in inequality too simplistically, as the result of financial deregulation and the “breathtaking greed” it enabled.

Read the whole thing. If we are to have a discussion on the issue of income inequality, it would be nice if the discussion could be a smart one. But the Occupy movement, and the White House appear to be determined to dumb down the discussion as much as possible.

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