Bernie Sanders, Frank Sinatra and income inequality

Bernie Sanders, Frank Sinatra and income inequality
© Greg Nash

In September 1901, President William McKinley was shot twice in the stomach by a self-declared anarchist. Despite receiving the best medical care available at that time, McKinley died a week later. A homeless man in 2019 who was similarly shot would have an excellent chance of survival. Why did the rich and powerful McKinley die in 1901 while today a homeless man would live? While U.S. income and wealth inequality remain great, the differences between the quality of life of the rich and the not-rich have narrowed dramatically. 

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Trump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans MORE, Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris posts video asking baby if she'll run for president one day Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates Saagar Enjeti unpacks why Kamala Harris's campaign didn't work MORE (D-Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary LGBTQ advocates slam Buttigieg for past history with Salvation Army Saagar Enjeti unpacks why Kamala Harris's campaign didn't work MORE (D-Mass.), Bernie SandersBernie SandersGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary Sanders to join youth climate strikers in Iowa Saagar Enjeti unpacks why Kamala Harris's campaign didn't work MORE (I-Vt.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegGabbard moves to New Hampshire ahead of primary LGBTQ advocates slam Buttigieg for past history with Salvation Army Poll: 2020 general election remains wide open MORE — the top five Democratic presidential candidates — all have made reducing income and wealth inequality a key part of their campaigns. However, while they all provide detailed proposals for reducing such inequalities, there is little discussion, other than envy, about why inequality is bad. 

First, one might argue that high levels of inequality mean unacceptably low living standards for lower income groups. Sanders warns that the United States is experiencing income inequalities close to those of the robber-baron era of Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. He noted in a viral speech in 2010 that people in the top 1 percent in the U.S. earned 23 percent of all U.S. income — about the same as in 1910. But even if income and wealth inequality are roughly the same as a century ago, differences in the quality of life are much narrower. 

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In addition to advances in medicine that might have saved McKinley, there has been a dramatic increase in access to goods and services among middle- and lower-income groups in America. A wealthy family in 1910 could flaunt its riches by eating strawberries in mid-winter, oysters although 1,000 miles from the ocean, or by having the greatest singers of the age perform in their home. However, life for Americans in the lower half of income distribution was often grim with limited or no access to quality medical care, shelter, clothing or education. Compared to today’s prices, food was cheap, but wages were also low; $2.50 per day for a skilled plumber or carpenter and less than half that for unskilled labor. As a result, most families struggled to get by, malnutrition was common, and there were cases of starvation. 

But over the past century, there has been a steady increase in the availability of goods and services that formerly were consumed only by the rich. In the 21st century, people who earn incomes in the lower half have access to much improved medical care, travel, entertainment and education. The most serious malnutrition problem facing low-income Americans is not starvation but obesity. Former luxuries now are commonplace. Strawberries and oysters are widely available, regardless of the season or geographic location. And every family that owns a color TV — which includes 97 percent of all families below the U.S. poverty line — can watch Beyonce perform in their living room. In many ways, Americans near the poverty line now live better than the rich of a hundred years ago. 

A second argument that often is made about why inequality is a problem is that the accumulation of great wealth requires the exploitation of the poor. But who did Robert L. Johnson, the first African American billionaire, exploit? Employees of his cable network and other various enterprises chose to work for him because he provided a combination of interesting work, possibility of advancement, salary and benefits that was better than their other options. His customers could have watched other channels, purchased their products elsewhere, or invested in other firms. But they chose to do business with Johnson because the quality and price of his products were better than the competition. If he provided better options for his employees, customers, and investors than how is that exploitation?

What about the objection that income inequality results in the rich having excessive influence on the political and social aspects of the United States? That great wealth is accompanied by great power is true, but incomplete. There are many areas of endeavor where one can’t buy power or influence. One can’t buy becoming a Marine Corps general, winning a Nobel prize, or writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. The highest paid team doesn’t always win the World Series, World Cup or Super Bowl. There are limits on the influence of money in politics; President TrumpDonald John TrumpStates slashed 4,400 environmental agency jobs in past decade: study Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Iran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report MORE won the presidency in 2016 while spending about half as much per vote as Hillary Clinton. 

The key point is that the connection between wealth and happiness is less tight than a century ago. The uncomfortable truth is that once a family has an income sufficient to purchase what we now consider necessities — maybe $35,000 a year — then quality of life and happiness are more dependent on personal decisions than income. To paraphrase that great 20th century American philosopher Frank Sinatra, it is better to live with the one you love in a cold-water walkup in the Bronx than to live alone in a luxurious condo on Central Park. 

Frank R. Gunter is a professor of economics at Lehigh University and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of “Political Economy of Iraq: Restoring Balance in Post Conflict Society.”