The Vicious Circle of Income Inequality

Almost every culture has some variation on the saying, “rags to rags in three generations.” Whether it’s “clogs to clogs” or “rice paddy to rice paddy,” the message is essentially the same: Starting with nothing, the first generation builds a successful enterprise, which its profligate offspring then manage poorly, so that by the time the grandchildren take over, little value remains.

Much of society’s wealth is created by new enterprises, so the apparent implication of this folk wisdom is that economic inequality should be self-limiting. And for most of the early history of industrial society, it was.

But no longer. Inequality in the United States has been increasing sharply for more than four decades and shows no signs of retreat. In varying degrees, it’s been the same pattern in other countries.

The economy has been changing, and new forces are causing inequality to feed on itself.

One is that the higher incomes of top earners have been shifting consumer demand in favor of goods whose value stems from the talents of other top earners. Because the wealthy have just about every possession anyone might need, they tend to spend their extra income in pursuit of something special. And, often, what makes goods special today is that they’re produced by people or organizations whose talents can’t be duplicated easily.

Wealthy people don’t choose just any architects, artists, lawyers, plastic surgeons, heart specialists or cosmetic dentists. They seek out the best, and the most expensive, practitioners in each category. The information revolution has greatly increased their ability to find those practitioners and transact with them. So as the rich get richer, the talented people they patronize get richer, too. Their spending, in turn, increases the incomes of other elite practitioners, and so on.