Imagine living in a country where the top 30% of the population had roughly 25 times as much wealth per person as the bottom 30% of the population. That seems pretty unequal, doesn’t it? Now suppose the same statistics applied, but every person at any given age had exactly the same wealth. All 18 year olds had the same wealth as other members of their cohort, as did all 60 year olds. But 18 year olds had much less wealth than 60 year olds. Now how would you feel about the data? Does that sort of society seem highly unequal? Not to me, indeed in a sense there’d be no inequality at all; each person would experience the exact same wealth trajectory over the course of their life.

Of course we don’t live in that sort of society, there are large differences in wealth at any given age. But even if we did have that sort of equality, the aggregate wealth data would look shockingly unequal. Here’s some Census data for the US, showing that the median person in the over 55 age group holds about 25 times as much wealth as in the 18 to 35 group:

So could we solve this measurement problem by getting wealth inequality data for each age cohort? Not even close, because wealth is a poor measure of economic well-being. Suppose you had two people who each earned \$100,000/year in wage income. Over the course of their life they both eventually spent all of their wealth on consumption goods. Both ended up with an identical level of total consumption, in present value terms. But one person spent all his money as it was earned, and then relied on Social Security, while the other saved 1/2 of his wage income, spending much more in his later years. By age 65 the thrifty guy might have several million dollars in wealth, while the other guy had almost nothing, even though (by assumption) they were equally well off in economic terms, they simply had different preferences as to when to spend their money.

I was recently at a NGDP conference in West Virginia, and noticed this in the local paper’s advice column:

Dear Dave,
My wife and I have just started getting on track with our money. We have \$2,000 in savings, and the only debt we have is our house and two cars. I work in the oil and gas industry and make about \$180,000 a year, but things are pretty volatile right now. We’re upside down on both vehicles, and we owe \$39,000 on one and about \$48,000 on the other. Under the circumstances, should we go ahead and build a fully funded emergency fund or work on paying off the cars?
Kendall

Dear Kendall,
Are you kidding me? Sell the cars, dude!

You need to go to Kelly Blue Book’s website right now, and find out what your cars are really worth. Then, put them on the market as a private sale. You’ll get thousands more selling them that way than you will at a dealership. You’ll have to talk to a local credit union or bank for a small loan to cover the difference, plus a little bit more so you guys can get a couple of little beaters to drive for a while.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess there aren’t very many similar letters in China. Like the advice columnist “Dave”, I have a temperament that makes it easy to save. But as a libertarian I favor allowing people like Kendall to spend their money when and how they wish. The only qualification is that I think people should be forced to save enough to cover the things that society would otherwise have to pay (basic retirement, medical, etc.) If we believe that people should be free to choose when to spend their wealth, we will end up with far more wealth inequality than if we try to force everyone to consume the “right amount” of each year’s income. But I don’t see how that sort of wealth inequality could be considered a problem.

Inevitably some will misconstrue what I am saying here. Just to be clear, even accounting for all the factors I mentioned (age, saving preferences, etc) there is still lots more inequality due to big differences in lifetime earnings (or inherited wealth.) So this post is not trying to suggest that inequality is not a problem. Rather I’m suggesting that if inequality is a problem, we would not be able to know that from the wealth inequality data that is presented in the media. And that’s because even if wealth inequality were not a problem at all, the actual inequality of wealth would look shocking large, with 100 to 1 disparities easily accounted for by nothing more than differences in age and saving propensities. The only data that truly gets at the inequality question is consumption inequality, which is very rarely discussed in the media.