Redistributing Wealth, a How-to Guide

Inequality: What can be done?

Inequality: What Can Be Done? by Anthony B. Atkinson.
National Journal
June 26, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

In­equal­ity: What Can Be Done?

by An­thony B. Atkin­son, Har­vard Uni­versity Press

WHAT IT’S ABOUT

(Har­vard Uni­versity Press)If a gov­ern­ment is ser­i­ous about ad­dress­ing eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity, says Atkin­son, there are a lot of things it can do. Past peri­ods of re­l­at­ive equal­ity in the United King­dom and oth­er de­veloped coun­tries were shaped by tax and trans­fer policy and pub­lic-in­vest­ment de­cisions—and those tools could be used suc­cess­fully again if the polit­ic­al will were there. Atkin­son, a Brit­ish eco­nom­ist, lays out 15 pro­pos­als for mov­ing the dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth back to­ward what it was in the more eco­nom­ic­ally equit­able 1950s and 1960s. (He fo­cuses on the United King­dom, but his ideas could be ap­plied in the United States as well.) He ad­mits up front that many of his sug­ges­tions are rad­ic­al: They in­clude rais­ing the top tax rate to 65 per­cent (the top mar­gin­al tax rate on earned in­come in the United States av­er­aged 75 per­cent from 1950 to 1979; it’s now about 40 per­cent) and provid­ing a sum of money (what he calls a “min­im­um in­her­it­ance”) to all cit­izens when they reach adult­hood.

TAR­GET D.C. AUDI­ENCE

Tax-policy wonks; eco­nom­ists; think tanks; fans of Thomas Piketty and Bernie Sanders; Eng­lish ma­jors (they’ll get a kick out of Atkin­son’s lit­er­ary ref­er­ences).

BEST LINE

“Com­pet­it­ive equal­ity of op­por­tun­ity means only that we all have an equal chance to take part in a race “¦ where there are un­equal prizes.”

TO BE SURE

Atkin­son starts with the premise that in­equal­ity is bad for so­ci­ety, and he goes to some lengths to ex­plain why he thinks so. But there are eco­nom­ists who dis­agree and who would ar­gue that the heavy-handed policies Atkin­son de­scribes would be fin­an­cially un­sus­tain­able and would hurt the eco­nomy in the long run.

ONE LEVEL DEEP­ER

Lib­er­al policy wonks will want to turn dir­ectly to Part 2, where Atkin­son lays out his pro­pos­als in de­tail. Their con­ser­vat­ive coun­ter­parts may want to do the same, for a bit of op­pos­i­tion re­search at the idea level. See: Atkin­son’s no­tion of a glob­al body for tax­ing the rich, no mat­ter where they live or keep their wealth.

THE BIG TAKEAWAY

Al­though tech­no­lo­gic­al change and glob­al­iz­a­tion are of­ten blamed for rising in­equal­ity, gov­ern­ment policy and so­cial norms—such as CEO pay scales—also strongly in­flu­ence the dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth.

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