Gerson's Confusion about Inequality
By David Henderson
Putnam’s goal is to reveal the consequences of inequality on kids. This unfairness is rooted in various, interrelated trends: family instability, community dysfunction and the collapse of the blue-collar economy. The result is a growing, class-related gap in social capital between rich and poor.
This is from Michael Gerson’s “The effects of inequality on America’s kids,” Washington Post, March 16, 2015. It’s Gerson’s op/ed on Robert D. Putnam’s book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.
Gerson goes on to tell some heartrending stories from the book about kids with no parents around because they are dead or in jail and kids who go to lousy (apparently government-funded) schools.
But ask yourself this: Imagine that you read these same stories and imagine that each family and household in the top third of the American income distribution had 10% less income. That way, there would be substantially less income inequality. Would you feel less bad about these stories? I wouldn’t. But if you feel the same as me, what are we saying? We’re saying that our concern is with these kids, not with income inequality.
I don’t know Putnam’s goal. Gerson could well be right that revealing “the consequences of inequality on kids” is his goal. What I do know is that the Putnam concerns that Gerson highlights are moving not because of income inequality but because of the absolute state of the kids in these positions.
Interestingly, one of the main quotes that Gerson uses from Putnam, identifies poverty, not inequality, as the problem. Writes Gerson:
“Poverty produces family instability,” he [Putnam] argues, “and family instability in turn produces poverty.”
It’s important to be clear about our goals. If our goal is to reduce income inequality, we can do that by much heavier taxes on high-income people. And that won’t necessarily do anything for poor people. The California state government has very high taxes on high-income people and uses some tax money to build an expensive railroad in the Central Valley.
It’s not even clear that the problem is poverty per se. If Gerson is quoting accurately, then the problem is more one of broken families, violent neighborhoods, and poor schools. If our goal is to help kids without families and if they live in “drug-ridden and violent” communities, to use Gerson’s words, we could end the drug war and thus end the part of the violence that’s due to the drug war. This measure, moreover, would reduce government spending, freeing it up to be spent on other things, to reduce the deficit, or to reduce taxes.
The point is that if we really care about kids in dysfunctional communities, we should focus on measures to help them. Gerson writes “And the more influence this [Putnam’s] book gains, the more just and generous our country will become.” Maybe, but Gerson has already had a false start. Will Gerson join me in calling for an end to the unjust drug war?