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Debating Your Conservative Relatives at the July 4 Picnic—6 Popular Inequality Myths Debunked

Annoyed by the absurdities swirling around the inequality debate? Here is a citizen's guide to debating a one percenter.

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How to Respond

This argument is the most depressing, because it’s often paired with a call to privatize education and blame teacher’s unions. But it too, is false. America doesn’t have as much upward mobility as the Nordic countries, its upward neighbor and most of Europe. Children who are born rich now get better test scores, are more likely to attend college and make more money than poorer children, even those with the same cognitive ability! The second part of Sowell’s statement is problematic for reasons already discussed: post-Clinton welfare reform, most people on welfare are those who are working, but simply aren’t paid enough.

6) The Poor Are Doing Just Fine

Example: Robert Rector

In 2005, the typical household defined as poor by the government had a car and air conditioning. For entertainment, the household had two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player and a VCR. If there were children, especially boys, in the home, the family had a game system, such as an Xbox or PlayStation.

How to Respond

The idea here is that a rising tide lifts all boats, but as Warren Buffet has noted, a rising tide only lifts all yachts. Even Adam Smith, the hero of classical economists, knows this is bunk: “A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life... But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty.” The real question is not whether the poor can afford amenities like a DVD player or an Xbox, it’s whether they can afford essentials like food, clothing and shelter. For poor Americans, the prices of these goods have increased dramatically, while the price of consumer goods has decreased dramatically. By singling out only consumer goods that have gotten cheaper, Rector disguises the real costs of inequality: worse health outcomes, worse educational outcomes and decreased social cohesion.

There’s no excuse for America to continue on the road of inequality. Plenty of other countries have managed to grow quickly without drastic inequality. Inequality is bad for democracy, health, safety, social cohesion and social mobility. Let’s not sugarcoat it.


Sean McElwee is a writer and researcher of public policy. He blogs at Follow him on Twitter @seanmcelwee

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