Who is the audience?
January Since the s, economic inequality in the US has increased dramatically.
And in particular, the rich have gotten a lot richer. Nearly everyone who writes about economic inequality says that it should be decreased. I'm interested in this question because I was one of the founders of a company called Y Combinator that helps people start startups.
Almost by definition, if a startup succeeds, its founders become rich. Which means by helping startup founders I've been helping to increase economic inequality.
If economic inequality should be decreased, I shouldn't be helping founders. No one should be. But that doesn't sound right. So have we just shown, by reductio ad absurdum, that it's false that economic inequality should be decreased?
That doesn't sound right either. Surely it's bad that some people are born practically locked into poverty, while at the other extreme fund managers exploit loopholes to cut their income taxes in half. The solution to this puzzle is to realize that economic inequality is not just one thing.
It consists of some things that are bad, like kids with no chance of reaching their potential, and others that are good, like Larry Page and Sergey Brin starting the company you use to find things online. If you want to understand economic inequality — and more importantly, if you actually want to fix the bad aspects of it — you have to tease apart the components.
And yet the trend in nearly everything written about the subject is to do the opposite: Sometimes this is done for ideological reasons. Sometimes it's because the writer only has very high-level data and so draws conclusions from that, like the proverbial drunk who looks for his keys under the lamppost, instead of where he dropped them, because the light is better there.
Sometimes it's because the writer doesn't understand critical aspects of inequality, like the role of technology in wealth creation. Much of the time, perhaps most of the time, writing about economic inequality combines all three.
The most naive version of which is the one based on the pie fallacy: Usually this is an assumption people start from rather than a conclusion they arrive at by examining the evidence.
Sometimes the pie fallacy is stated explicitly: But the unconscious form is very widespread. I think because we grow up in a world where the pie fallacy is actually true. To kids, wealth is a fixed pie that's shared out, and if one person gets more it's at the expense of another.
It takes a conscious effort to remind oneself that the real world doesn't work that way.
In the real world you can create wealth as well as taking it from others. A woodworker creates wealth. He makes a chair, and you willingly give him money in return for it. A high-frequency trader does not. He makes a dollar only when someone on the other end of a trade loses a dollar.
If the rich people in a society got that way by taking wealth from the poor, then you have the degenerate case of economic inequality, where the cause of poverty is the same as the cause of wealth. But instances of inequality don't have to be instances of the degenerate case.
If one woodworker makes 5 chairs and another makes none, the second woodworker will have less money, but not because anyone took anything from him. Even people sophisticated enough to know about the pie fallacy are led toward it by the custom of describing economic inequality as a ratio of one quantile's income or wealth to another's.
It's so easy to slip from talking about income shifting from one quantile to another, as a figure of speech, into believing that is literally what's happening.
Except in the degenerate case, economic inequality can't be described by a ratio or even a curve. In the general case it consists of multiple ways people become poor, and multiple ways people become rich. Which means to understand economic inequality in a country, you have to go find individual people who are poor or rich and figure out why.
This is one way I know the rich aren't all getting richer simply from some new system for transferring wealth to them from everyone else. When you use the would-have method with startup founders, you find what most would have done back inwhen economic inequality was lower, was to join big companies or become professors.Do The Right Thing, a movie directed by Spike Lee, filmed on a sunny summer day in a black neighbourhood in Brooklyn is what many consider a great movie.
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