Prosperity has a price, but everyone ultimately wins
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There are lots of conflicting opinions in America today; in fact, the only thing everyone seems to agree on is that we are deeply divided. 

A host of contentious issues confront us: climate change and how we should respond to it; the best way to counter Islamic terrorism; how we should improve education for our young people; what to do about illegal immigration; fraying relations among ethnic and religious groups—and the list could go on.

One of the most fundamental disagreements turns on what steps we ought to take to improve our economy and the economic prospects of those who are in the workforce today, and those who will be in the workforce tomorrow.

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People on the left of the political spectrum tend to focus on steps that will reduce the substantial inequality in wealth and income that exists today. Sen. Bernie Sander’s (I-VT) campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was centered on that very issue, and strong echoes of his message could be heard in the rhetoric of candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton slams Trump for spreading 'sexist trash' about Pelosi Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery MORE.

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpA better VA, with mental health services, is essential for America's veterans Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote Trump arrives in Japan to kick off 4-day state visit MORE’s message on this issue, as on many issues, was hard to pin down. Nevertheless, on the traditionally conservative or right end of the spectrum, the emphasis is more on increasing business activity and the gross domestic product, and less on concerns about how the resulting wealth should be distributed.

There is a thought experiment I like to pose to try to gauge where people position themselves on the political spectrum with regard to the economy. Suppose that somehow you had the power to determine the path of the U.S. economy into the indefinite future, but your power was limited to choosing between only two paths.

One path is that, every year, everyone in the U.S. gets richer in wealth, but the percentage gap between the richest cohort and the poorest cohort increases. That is, everyone gets richer, but the inequality between the richest and the poorest grows wider each year.

For example, people who had wealth of $10,000 now have wealth of $11,000, but people who had wealth of $10 million now have wealth of $15 million, and so on. You can, of course, arrange the percentage increases as you wish, provided the richer always have a bigger percentage gain than the poorer.

The other path is that, every year, everyone in the U.S. gets poorer, but the percentage gap between the richest and the poorest narrows.

That is, everyone gets poorer, but the inequality between the richest and the poorest grows less each year. People who had wealth of $11,000 now have wealth of $10,000, but people who had wealth of $15 million now have wealth of $10 million. Again, arrange the decreases any way you like, so long as the richer always have bigger percentage decreases than the poorer.

Which path do you choose?

Your first instinct might be to complain that that is a false choice, because we should be able to simultaneously increase wealth and also reduce inequality. That position has indeed been proposed and defended by the economist Joseph Stiglitz in his book, “The Price of Inequality”.

The problem, however, is that, given the choice, everyone would choose to make every person richer while simultaneously reducing the gap between the richest and the poorest. So, if we include that third path, the experiment becomes perfectly dull and entirely unenlightening. Even if you believe that there is in fact a third path, the question I invite you to answer is: what would you do if you had to choose between only the two paths I have specified?

How long it takes you to make up your mind, and what you finally decide when your mind is made up, is what marks your position on the political spectrum, at least with respect to questions regarding the economy.

In my own case, for example, I find that I very quickly settle on the first path specified above—I’d choose that everyone gets richer, even though the gap between the richest and the poorest widens. My reasoning is that all the social programs that are intended to help the poorest among us—whether those programs are created by governments or by private charities—cost money, and if everyone has more money (which is the result of following the first path), it will be easier to fund those programs.

So, I would say that that choice, taken together with the ease with which I make it, places me, with regard to economic issues, pretty far over on the right side of the spectrum.

There of course is no right or wrong answer here. We all will have our reasons, sufficient to ourselves, for making our choices.

But this experiment is, I think, an interesting way to elicit contrasting opinions about an important economic issue, and it doesn’t even require us to shout at one another.

David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the NYS Bar. He currently resides in Cary, N.C., and has published pieces on the Social Science Research Network and The Times of Israel.


The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.