Why has the topic of “inequality” been getting so much attention in recent years? I have a theory, which I’ll advance in a future piece. But first things first.
What do the writers who are obsessing about it mean by “inequality”? They basically mean inequality of income. That would make sense if we all agree that the most important way in which people are unequal is differences in income. But what if that isn’t the case? Almost all of the people who are doing the complaining have chosen professions that earn less income than they could have had. That is, all these professors and editorial writers could have gone to law school or gotten an MBA or done something else that would have earned them more money. Obviously, money isn’t the most important thing in their lives.
The list below shows some other ways in which people are unequal. These things basically can’t be purchased. But if we were really concerned about life’s unfairness, we could compensate those who have less of these attributes and tax those who have more.
Life is unfair.
On the last item, there has been a persistent gap between the life expectancies of men and women ― across all racial and ethnic groups. We don’t want to lower the life expectancy of women and we don’t know how to raise the life expectancy of men. But a general tax on women to be distributed to men would help redress some of nature’s injustice (see Dwight Lee.) Plus, with this tax there would be very little of the avoidance and evasion behavior we see with the income tax. (Not many people would get a sex change just to avoid paying it.)
To return to college professors, for a moment, they have an enormous amount of time to do whatever they feel like doing. They only have, say, six to nine hours of required work every week (teaching) and even then they have enormous discretion over what they actually do. Plus they have the whole summer off. The term “leisure time” doesn’t really capture what is going on here. Let’s just say they have leisurely jobs. Contrast that with people who have no discretion over how they perform their jobs, who work 40 hours a week or more, who hate their work and who can’t wait to retire. (College professors rarely want to retire.)
If you care a lot about inequality, an argument could be made for taxing college professors and giving the money to people whose work experience is boring, uninteresting, unfulfilling and has no purpose (for them) other than paying their bills.
If you believe Tom Wolfe, the most important thing on the list above is status. In Wolfe’s novels, status is far more important than income ― for almost everybody. What are some indictors of status? Being quoted in major newspapers. Being interviewed on TV. Winning a Nobel Prize. By way of contrast, think of all the people who have never been quoted in any newspaper, who have never been on TV and who have never won any prize. I believe there is far more inequality of status than inequality of income, although I’m not sure how to measure these things.
In any event, if inequality bothers you, think about a special tax on Nobel Prize winners, on TV talk show guests and on people whose names appear in the national news media ― with the proceeds distributed, of course, to people who have no status. Anyone called “counselor” or “esquire” or “doctor” is an obvious candidate for a status tax. Someone called both “professor” and “doctor” ought to be a candidate for double taxation. If the professor/doctor also has an eponymous blog, make that a triple tax!
I definitely would include politicians. In fact, if status is what is most important in life, there should be a special tax on elected officials and a huge tax on whoever is president.
There is a closely related issue. In my line of work I meet an enormous number of people who are frustrated because the world pays no attention to what they think. They have no forum from which to get their ideas in front of everyone else.
But imagine you could be an editorial writer for The New York Times. Better, imagine you could say anything you wanted to say ― ignoring facts and even saying things that are demonstrably untrue. Plus, no matter what you say, you never have to publish a retraction or apologize. Imagine that you could use your column to say mean and nasty things about people you don’t like and you could call them any name The NYT regards as “fit to print.”
Now imagine auctioning off the right to have this job. How much do you think people would be willing to pay? I’ll bet there would be some willing to pay $1 million for the opportunity.
In any event, there should be a special tax on whoever gets this job. A very big tax.