One more thought on the way we often discuss inequality. You’ll often see folk disturbed by inequality, or the growth thereof, say something along the lines of: “Last year, X percent of the growth in the economy/wealth/wages went to the top Y percent of the population.” Which makes it sound rather as though there’s some big aggregate number “economic growth” that then gets parceled out, either equitably or otherwise, to particular people. Nobody literally imagines this is how it works on reflection, of course, but I wonder if framing it that way doesn’t play a part in triggering the sense that this must be unfair somehow. Yet the aggregate growth is, after all, just the sum of all the wealth created by lots of individual people and organizations. The same situation, then, might sound rather different described in a more bottom-up way: “A, B, and C made $X doing Y, which represented an increase of Z percent over the previous year, while D, E, and F made…”
That’s too simple, in a sense, since what any one person or group can create depends on conditions across the economy; differences in bargaining power will affect the way jointly produced value is divided up within firms; and so on. But the “percent of growth” way of talking overcorrects too far in the other direction, treating growth only as a joint product without bothering much about the extent to which differential returns represent differential inputs. If we want to inquire into the justice of a distribution, shouldn’t we be looking at how it’s generated (and what might be fair or unfair about that process) rather than just the raw aggregate numbers?