Monday, June 18, 2012
To get a sense of just how bad our income inequality has become, it's worth taking a look at how we stack up to the rest of the world. Viewed comparatively, U.S. income inequality is even worse than you might expect. Perfect comparisons across the world's hundred-plus economies would be impossible -- standards of living, the price of staples, social services, and other variables all mean that relative poverty feels very different from one country to another. But, in absolute terms, the gulf between rich and poor is still telling.
Perhaps the most politically contentious aspect of President Barack Obama's new proposed legislation, aimed to revive the still-struggling U.S. economy, is $1.5 trillion in tax increases, much of it aimed at wealthy Americans. The White House is calling this "the Buffett rule." Named for super-investor Warren Buffett's complaint that he pays a lower tax rate than some of his most menial wage employees, the legislation would be designed to ensure that anyone making more than $1 million per year will pay at least the same rate as middle-income taxpayers. The U.S., in purple with a Gini coefficient of 0.450, ranks near the extreme end of the inequality scale. Looking for the other countries marked in purple gives you a quick sense of countries with comparable income inequality, and it's an unflattering list: Cameroon, Madagascar, Rwanda, Uganda, Ecuador. A number are currently embroiled in or just emerging from deeply destabilizing conflicts, some of them linked to income inequality: Mexico, Côte d'Ivoire, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Serbia. Income inequality is more severe in the U.S. than it is in nearly all of West Africa, North Africa, Europe, and Asia. We're on par with some of the world's most troubled countries, and not far from the perpetual conflict zones of Latin American and Sub-Saharan Africa. Our income gap is also getting worse, having widened both in absolute and relative terms since the 1980s. It's not a problem that the "Buffett rule" would solve on its own, but at least the U.S. political system is starting to acknowledge how serious things have become.