Douthat: Fighting income inequality is futile

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New York Mayor Bill De Blasio kisses his wife, Chirlane McCray, at his inauguration last week, as their children, Chiara and Dante, look on. De Blasio has vowed to target income inequality.
  • AP Photo/Seth Wenig
  • New York Mayor Bill De Blasio kisses his wife, Chirlane McCray, at his inauguration last week, as their children, Chiara and Dante, look on. De Blasio has vowed to target income inequality.
There's a growing consensus about fighting income inequality, but Ross Douthat is not part of it. The New York Times columnist yesterday questioned whether such a campaign ought to even be attempted.

Douthat began by mocking last week’s inauguration ceremony of Bill de Blasio, the theme of which was inequality and the new mayor of New York’s vow to confront it. "A concentration of left-wing agitprop unseen since the last time Pete Seeger occupied a stage alone," Douthat called it.

Then the columnist made his case against tackling inequality, relying mainly on right-wing agitprop reminiscent of the last Republican National Convention.

Douthat wrote that universal pre-K—a key tool de Blasio plans to employ—"doesn't have the benefits to children's prospects that its advocates suggest" according to "most research".

The evidence for pre-K is not yet quite as compelling as the evidence that human activity is a key cause of climate change—but it's getting there. Here's the link Douthat provided; and here's the other side—a post from an economist that cites studies in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Michigan, New Jersey, West Virginia, South Carolina, Arkansas, and New Mexico, which all found large, positive effects on test scores from a year of preschool.

And here's a recent paper by Nobel prizewinning economist James Heckman on the renowned Perry Preschool program, noting the substantial impact on adult outcomes that two years of preschool gave disadvantaged African-American children. Heckman and his coauthors found that the positive impacts were likely due to improvement in personality traits important to success in adulthood.

In his column, Douthat made one point worth considering. He asserted that "while upper-middle-class voters are happy to support higher taxes on 1 percenters . . . they don't necessarily want a program that would require their own taxes to rise substantially." Broad, significant reductions in inequality require "lots of tax dollars from the non-rich," the columnist wrote. De Blasio is promising to increase taxes only on those with incomes above $500,000. President Obama, likewise, has aimed the bulk of his proposed tax increases at the rich. Households in the top 5 percent (pulling in more than $227,000) would pay 85 percent of the increases, according to the Tax Policy Center; millionaire households would pay 60 percent of his tax increases.

But the large swath of households with incomes from $100,000 to $200,000—14 percent of all taxpayers—would pay on average only $150 more, reducing their after-tax income by just .1 percent.

In Douthat's view, the multitude of Americans who are secure but not rich are eager to fight inequality so long as it involves wagging their fingers at millionaires and not dipping into their own mutual funds. Which, he wrote, makes it "impossible for the populist war on inequality to ever actually be won."

Well, it's not impossible. And the increasing focus of late on inequality is laudable and reason for hope. But, yes: a more equitable division of the nation's wealth requires more sharing not just by the megarich but also by the comfortable.

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