When New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks wrote a column three weeks ago declaring that all the moaning about rising income inequality in the United States was bogus, he didn't just spur fellow Times columnist Paul Krugman into action. He also kicked off a debate in the econoblogosphere that has been raging ever since.
But if you're looking for clarity, give up now. Because if you put 15 economists in a room, they'll tire themselves out fighting over how to measure whatever it is they're arguing about long before they come to any kind of consensus. In the case of inequality, it's not just a matter of something simple, like whether or not certain income figures are adjusted for inflation. It's also a question of what should count when you are trying to put a figure on something as amorphous as the "standard of life."
Does access to hundreds of channels of television, eBay, Amazon, and iTunes mean life is qualitatively better than the days when one was limited to the paltry selection of your local mall, bookstore, record store and piddling VHF and UHF stations? What about GPS locators, airbags and satellite radio in your car? What about cheap goods at Wal-Mart compared to expensive goods at the local hardware store?
Don't go there. Trying to thus define the quality of life requires putting a monetary value on every aspect of existence, and that's a quick ticket to the loony bin. I've got something much simpler to offer. The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that "health-care premiums of employers and their workers have climbed twice as fast as wages and inflation in 2006 -- to nearly double their cost in 2000 -- and look to rise at a similar clip next year."
According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust, "After several years of steady steep rises, the cost for family coverage under an employer health plan is now $11,480, well over the annual wage of a full-time minimum wage worker and beyond what many companies, mostly smaller businesses, and their workers can afford. While 98 percent of firms with more than 200 workers still provide some sort of employee health benefits, only 60 percent of smaller companies do. That's little changed from last year but down from 68 percent in 2000."
Healthcare continues to get more expensive, fewer companies can afford to offer it. Result: The poorer you are and the sicker you are, the more you get screwed. Put that into your inequality pipe and smoke it.