Godwinning the income inequality debate
posted at 1:18 pm on October 27, 2011 by Karl
Given the internet, I’m not surprised James Pethokoukis beat me to this by a couple of hours, as I intend to rely on his prior work a bit:
Liberals think there are lots of ideas that intelligent Americans just aren’t supposed to challenge. If they do, they’ll be labeled “deniers,” intentionally raising a nasty comparison to Holocaust rejectionists. It’s politics at its absolute lowest.
Among the unchallengeable dogmata: the Obama stimulus created millions of jobs, Obamacare will save trillions of dollars, Dodd-Frank prevents future bank bailouts, policy uncertainty isn’t an issue hampering the recovery. And, of course, global warming poses an existential threat to civilization and humanity. Make that an “undeniable” threat.
You can now add “income inequality” to the list, thanks to New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait. In a column headlined “The Ideological Fantasies of Inequality Deniers,” Chait writes: “Rising income inequality, like climate change, is an ideologically inconvenient issue for conservatives. … The underlying facts, like the facts of climate change, are stark. Over the last few decades, income growth for most Americans has slowed to a crawl, while income for the very rich has exploded.”
Chait’s attack targets Rep. Raul Ryan for a speech he gave at the Heritage Foundation. Thunders Chait: “Don’t confuse Paul Ryan with the facts. If studies run up against Ryan’s ideology, then the studies must give way.” Chait’s argument has a couple of teeny-weeny flaws.
First, none of Chait’s quotes from the speech have Ryan denying income inequality. Indeed, if you read the entire speech — which I recommend — Ryan never denies income inequality. You would think that if you were going to insinuate that someone is akin to a Nazi sympathizer, you would want to have evidence of the “denial” at issue. But you are not Jon Chait — unless you are Jon Chait, in which case I’m sorry for you, dude. Rather, Ryan argues in the speech that American policy should be focused on upward income mobility, rather than redistribution of wealth.
Second, in discussing mobility, Ryan said this:
The Treasury Department’s latest study on income mobility in America found that during the ten-year period starting in 1996, roughly half of the taxpayers who started in the bottom 20 percent had moved up to a higher income group by 2005.
Meanwhile, half of all taxpayers ended up in a different income group at the end of ten years. Many moved up, and some moved down, but economic growth resulted in rising incomes for most people over this period.
Another recent survey of over 500 successful entrepreneurs found that 93 percent came from middle-class or lower-class backgrounds. The majority were the first in their families to launch a business.
Those studies are consistent with a recent study by a Panel Study of Income Dynamics from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, covering 2001-07, and a Census Bureau study of US households in poverty. To be sure, there are studies like one Chait cites, suggesting there is less income mobility in the US than in various European countries — but there are studies pointing the other way, too. (Indeed, had Ryan chosen to expressly address income inequality, as opposed to income mobility, he could have cited a number of studies suggesting the issue is overstated and expert opinion that income inequality has its benefits, promoting innovation and economic success — a position contrary to the right’s supposed denial of the phenomenon.) If Ryan is to be accused of ignoring “the studies,” despite having cited studies, then Chait is equally guilty.
Less than three months ago, Chait wrote:
Conservative pundits, while usually slanting their account in highly partisan and often misleading terms, do a fairly good job of grasping and explaining the fact that the two parties fundamentally disagree on the causes of and solutions to the economic crisis and the long-term deficit. In this sense, a Rush Limbaugh listener may well be better informed about the causes of the impasse than listener of NPR or other mainstream organs. The former will have in his mind a wildly slanted version of the basic political landscape, while the latter’s head will be filled with magical thinking.
When it comes to income inequality and mobility, it’s Chait wearing the magical thinking cap. Unable to acknowledge that debatable questions are in fact debatable, Chait slinks into the gutter, insulting the memory of the Holocaust in the process. It is the sort of tactic employed when losing a debate.