As the Occupy Wall Street protests drag on into their ninth week, the movement has spawned global "occupations" from Rome to London, Toronto to Santiago, Hong Kong to Taipei. Meanwhile, the protesters continue their calls for "democracy not corporatocracy" -- revolutionary language, even if it falls just a bit short of "eat the rich." So perhaps it is no surprise that some of those more at home with the traditional occupants of Wall Street have been quick to complain that this is just one more sign of growing class warfare.
But is the threat of conflict between the rich and the rest a good thing once in a while? Talk of class warfare rears its head when more people start thinking that the rich are rich not because of their hard work or talent but because they are lucky or because the system is stacked in their favor. That view is becoming increasingly widespread -- 75 percent of Americans back a millionaires' tax, for example. And to an extent, it's right -- not just as a matter of fairness, but as a matter of economics. A bit of redistribution might actually help make everyone -- including the rich -- better off in the long term.
Behind the protests is a growing level of frustration over the yawning income gap. The top fifth of households in the United States earn 10 times what the poorest fifth makes and more than the rest of the country combined. The incomes of the richest 1 percent are 67 times those of the poorest 20 percent of households. And over time, that gap has widened. According to the Congressional Budget Office, between 1979 and 2007, the richest 1 percent saw their after-tax incomes climb 275 percent compared with an 18 percent rise for the poorest fifth. The story is similar, if less dramatic, in other rich economies.
In the United States, a number of prominent Republicans, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have responded to disquiet over this income gap by emphasizing the need for equality of opportunity for all Americans. That is surely the right focus: We want to reward both hard work and talent to ensure continued prosperity for everyone. But the evidence suggests we are a very long way from equality of opportunity in most countries, and in particular the United States. According to an analysis by economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis at the Santa Fe Institute, of children born to the poorest 10 percent of parents in the United States, more than half remain in the bottom fifth of incomes as adults.