AEI Needs An Envy Intervention

AEI's Arthur Brooks had an opinion piece in the New York Times over the weekend about the downside of inciting envy. By envy, of course, he means people who object to income differences that result from unjust distributive institutions. It was a silly piece, and what follows are some scattered remarks.

1. Arthur Brooks' colleague Andrew Biggs must be miserable.

In his quest to wave away soaring economic inequality, Brooks tells us that "social comparison" is destructive and decreases happiness. He also tells us that people who are angry that others have more than they deserve are unhappy. Consequently, focusing people on these kinds of things is "toxic for American culture."

I am left wondering then why Mr. Brooks does not stage an intervention on behalf of his AEI colleague Andrew Biggs. Biggs is utterly obsessed with trying to show that public employees are "overpaid" and "pampered", and with advocating that their compensation be cut (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, et al). The sheer level of destructive "social comparison" and anger over others having more than they deserve must have Biggs pretty depressed.

This might seem like a cheap shot, but I am truly baffled by what the difference here is. AEI's screed against public employees is purely about social comparison and judgments around deservingness. In addition to their own apparent enviousness, they are trying to incite others to be engaged in it as well. Why are they spreading such unhappiness? Shouldn't they avoid ever focusing on what other people are getting? It's almost as if their procedural objection to social comparison is not remotely serious and is a gasping hand-waving effort to protect the rich.

2. Success is driven by luck.

Brooks, like other conservatives, is really fond of the fact that Americans are unique in the world in thinking that those who wind up on the top of the economic hierarchy are personally responsible for that. He is really upset that this view appears to be receding.

It's understandable why Brooks does not like this. He clearly is a fan of the rich and how we distribute income in society, and knows that shifting American attitudes and opinions threatens that. But facts are facts, and the luck-based nature of where one winds up in the economic hierarchy is undeniable.

The richer your parents are, the richer you are, all the way up the income distribution.

The richer your parents are, the more likely you are to attend college at age 19, all the way up the income distribution.

In addition to class-based stratification in the attendance of college, there is class-based stratification among college attendees. The richer your parents are, the more likely you are to be in better post-secondary institutions.

The luck involved in the birth lottery is heavily correlated with educational attainment and adult income. The relationship between being born rich and being rich as an adult is not purely a function of education though. As one last kick in the teeth to the exceptional poor, rich kids who do not have college degrees are 2.5x more likely to be rich adults than poor kids who do have college degrees.

The view that luck and connections are heavily responsible for where one winds up is just correct on the merits. It gives Brooks a sad because it undermines his pro-inequality political project, but the truth is the truth.

3. Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit

After Brooks finishing mourning the demise of the great American meritocracy delusion, he does get around to proposing some solutions. They are all terrible except the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Giving low-income people more money is a fantastic idea, and so hopefully we can all unite around that. Of course, there is no need to stop at EITC expansion. We can and should go further and provide a guaranteed basic income, universal health care, universal vacation, universal child care, universal maternity and paternity leave. If you want to pump up the well-being of those at the bottom (and thereby improve their opportunity), there are tons of things we can do.