06/19/2017

Your Neighbor's Fancy Car Should Make You Feel Better About Income Inequality

John V.C. Nye, Reason

Today while I was out running errands in my 5-year-old Honda Accord, I passed a Tesla. If I were a different kind of guy, seeing Elon Musk's latest creation whisk past me as I trundled along in my middleclassmobile might have inspired a sense of personal envy, or even some worry about the social implications of inequality in America.

But I'm an economist. And let's face it: In practical terms, the difference between a $200,000 Tesla and my last car, a beat-up minivan worth $2,000 at trade-in, is not all that large. They're both safe forms of transportation that get you from point A to point B and, given legal limits and the reality of suburban traffic, most of the time they're driven at roughly the same speeds.

In that sense, measures of income inequality overstate the differences within a developed country like the United States. The products available to the masses are, in many cases, nearly as good as those available only to the elite. Your garbageman's old Timex and your podiatrist's brand new Rolex serve almost precisely the same function.

It wasn't always so. A century ago, a hungry rich person had access to significantly more food and more choices than a poor one. Yet even bluebloods would have been able to get their hands on less variety and quality than one now finds at an average Midwestern all-you-can-eat buffet. When Herbert Hoover promised "a chicken in every pot" in the election of 1928, it was the sort of pledge that no one expected a politician to actually keep. Today, each American consumes an average of 27 chickens a year, and obesity is a bigger problem than hunger.

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Thanks to "bracket creep," the inflation of the 1970s pushed millions of taxpayers into higher tax brackets even though their inflation-adjusted incomes were not rising. To help offset this tax increase and also to improve incentives to work, save, and invest, President Reagan proposed sweeping tax rate reductions during the 1980s. What happened? Total tax revenues climbed by 99.4 percent during the 1980s, and the results are even more impressive when looking at what happened to personal income tax revenues. Once the economy received an unambiguous tax cut in January 1983, income tax revenues climbed dramatically, increasing by more than 54 percent by 1989 (28 percent after adjusting for inflation).

 

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