While driving the clogged freeways of California, I listened to an NPR show in which the central complaint was the inequality of income distribution in the United States. Walter Benn Michaels bashes universities for being obsessed with admitting rich kids with Hispanic last names or dark skin, instead of kids from poor families. Nobody raised what to me seemed like obvious questions, e.g.,
1) Should we stop accepting poor immigrants if we are worried about income distribution? A Somali immigrant might end up achieving a higher standard of living here than in Somalia, but he or she is going to swell the ranks of below-average earners.
2) Are the people whom we consider poor today better or worse off, materially, than America’s poor were in the 1950s or 1970s?
3) Is it inevitable that as an economy gets more complex, those who are clever and talented will find ways to get rich that weren’t available in a simpler economy? (And people who aren’t clever or talented won’t get any boost.)
Question 3 seems like the big one for me. I was driving from a photographer’s house in Napa to an animator’s house in Oakland. My host in Napa would have been lucky to earn a middling salary on a newspaper or magazine staff in the 1950s. He is moderately rich today because our more sophisticated economy (1) allows him and his wife to finance and publish their own books, cutting publishers out of much of the profit, (2) allows him to market his decades of photography via the Internet to stock photo customers, and (3) allows him to do assignment work for magazines worldwide, the phone and the jet airliner making him just about as accessible to a European magazine as a European photographer. My host/cousin in Oakland has a great talent for art and loves doing animation. 50 or 100 years ago, he would have been a commercial artist selling illustrations for $5-25 apiece. Maybe if he had been lucky, he would have gotten what would then have been a low-paid job at Disney (as actors were not well paid under the studio system, animators did even worse). Today there are dozens of employers of animators in the U.S., including Disney, Dreamworks, and Pixar. Licensing deals with toy companies and cable networks, and new technologies such as the DVD make animated movies vastly more profitable than they were 50 years ago and enough of those profits have trickled down to the animators that they can afford to live very comfortably indeed.
The folks on NPR are complaining about how the rich are getting richer and we need to change government and institutional policies accordingly. However, both of the folks I visited owe most of their wealth to changes in the economy and world markets that have nothing to do with government or university policies (nobody even cares if they have a college degree).