If you’re even a little bit interested in income inequality and how it matters, this Browser interview with MIT economist Daron Acemoglu is a must-read. Acemoglu explains how economists generally think about inequality:
The default position of economists is that inequality reflects the unequal human capital or productive capabilities of different workers. If you start with that premise – that what people earn is commensurate with their contribution to their employer, and also perhaps to society – then greater inequality tells you something about how people’s productivities have evolved over time. This is by no means what every economist believes, but it’s a common view. Economists have cut their teeth on inequality by looking at things like the increase in the college premium over the last 30 years in the U.S. and other economies, as well as the increase in the gap between relatively high earners – the 90th percentile of income distribution – versus the bottom 10th percentile. We’ve seen a big increase in inequality, measured in various ways, and this reflects the fact that the top people, the more educated, high earners have become more skilled. Technology has favored them, globalization has favored them, and inequality has increased for that reason.
And here’s Acemoglu on the average layman’s view of inequality:
My caricature of a layman’s view is that inequality is an indication of something that is failing in society. If a group of people used to earn twice as much as another group of people, and then, over 20 years, that ratio increases to four, that’s something that is concerning and might indicate a failure of social policy.
Acemoglu also discusses CEO compensation, inequality in other countries, the education system and the recent financial system.