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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Wealth: Benefitting and Distorting Society

According to The New York Times, “One of the great political and economic challenges of our time is figuring out the balance between wealth that benefits society and wealth that distorts.” In terms of benefitting society, invested (as distinct from donated) wealth can benefit consumers by enabling better and cheaper products. Economists estimate that for every dollar invested in productive enterprise, there is $5 of benefit to consumers.  Interestingly, this does not apply to money that is donated (rather than invested) to feed the poor (i.e., consumption rather than production).
In terms of distorting society, “the study of “rent seeking” describes how “people or companies get rich because of their power, not because of their ideas.” That is, “wealthy individuals and corporations are able to influence politicians and regulators to make seemingly insignificant changes to regulations that benefit themselves. In other words, to rig the game.” Wealth can have a distorting effect not only on society, but also on the political and economic systems.  Contributing to the financial crisis, for example, “some of the [U.S.’s] largest banks actively manipulated customers and regulators and, sometimes, their own stockholders to profit from dangerous risk.” Moreover, for “many economists, rising inequality can create exactly the wrong outcomes for society over all. Rather than simply serving as an invitation for everybody to engage in potentially beneficial risk-taking, inequality can allow those with wealth to crush new ideas.”
It is said that there will always be the rich and always be the poor. To some extent, economic inequality simply reflects the decisions people make—choices that reflect character, will-power, talent and aptitude. To reduce all of these to a uniformity would take a rather astonishing re-working of the human genome. Even so, it is also the case that the rich are able to exchange or use their economic power for political power and thus “rig the system” in their own favor—such that they can become even richer.
It seems to me that a society must recognize some economic inequality, given human nature and free-will. To take a simple example, some students will force themselves to study more while others will make the easier choice of going out for a beer. Most people would agree that the students who studied and got A’s should be wealthier. The economic inequality is justified by their greater sacrifice. Furthermore, if wealthy people are necessary for investment in productive enterprise to be possible or sufficient, then some economic inequality is justified because it serves society by benefitting consumers as well as the wealthy.
At the same time, society also has an interest in protecting the viability of itself, including its political and economic systems, from being distorted by the rich into serving them disproportionately. An upper limit on wealth is thus justified. The difficulty lies in determining where to draw the line. Just because there is no mathematical equation that will give “the” answer does not justify refusing to draw the line—treating economic liberty as having no upper limit. I suspect that this lapse is a salient part of American culture.

Adam Davidson, “The Purpose ofSpectacular Wealth, According to a Spectacularly Wealthy Guy,” The New York Times, May 1, 2012.