John Quiggin makes the case that redistribution of income away from the top 1 percent is essentially the only thing that matters in American politics. After all, as Willie Sutton said, “that’s where the money is.”
I’m all for that, but I really do think it’s an unduly limited view of political life. Even with several decades of median wage stagnation, the fact of the matter is that the median American household has quite a lot of money compared to the median household of almost every other country. And yet, I think there are a lot of other respects in which quality of life in the United States falls short. We spend a lot of time in traffic jams. We have both a frighteningly high murder rate and a frighteningly high level of incarceration. Our health care system is very inefficient. Americans work very long hours and have unusually little vacation time. It’s not clear to me that any of these issues can be usefully tackled primarily by focusing on higher taxation of the very wealthy.
What’s more, even in narrowly economic terms, I do think there’s a real need to tackle the issue of scarcity. The different debates about “gentrification” are instructive in this regard. The basic shape of the issue is that with housing in limited supply, those with less money will tend to be pushed out by those with more money. The result is very inegalitarian from the perspective of quality of life. And yet even if the income gap were narrowed, the scarcity would remain and it would still be the case that the richer households push out the poorer ones. To me, it’s an indication that we need to spend a fair amount of time thinking about the scarcity as such and ameliorating it. In America today, a house in a safe neighborhood with good public schools featuring a convenient commute to the central business district of an economically vibrant city is a scarce commodity. This scarcity is a problem — or perhaps an interlocking set of problems — that, like the inefficiency of the health care system and the brutal inefficacy of the crime control system needs to be tackled on its own terms.