January 31, 2012

James Q. Wilson [“Angry about income inequality? Don’t blame the rich,” Outlook, Jan. 29] presented a selective reading of our book “Class War?” and a mistaken view of what Americans think about economic inequality.

True, Americans are not consumed with envy of the wealthy. Most applaud success and hope to achieve it themselves. Some say it is “still possible” (i.e., not impossible) to start out poor, work hard and become rich.

But the number of Americans expressing such optimism fell sharply after 2008, as actual mobility declined. Most Americans think inequality of income and wealth has become too great. Most favor substantially higher taxes on the wealthy.

Our current research on wealthy Americans indicates that the wealthy largely agree. They, too, are concerned about widening inequalities. Most accept the idea of progressive taxation. Most express willingness to pay more taxes to help others with such things as early childhood education.

At a time when government revenues are at a historic low point, the willingness of the wealthy to pitch in and help those on the bottom would seem to be particularly welcome.

Benjamin I. Page, Evanston, Ill.

Lawrence R. Jacobs, Minneapolis

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Among the many recent comments concerning the growing income inequality in the United States, James Q. Wilson’s analysis was most convincing because it suggested that economic growth is a variable that cannot be ignored. The Gini coefficient (the measure of inequality) of China was 0.16 (0.0 is complete income equality) before economic reforms and “opening-up” policies began in that country in 1978. The figure is now 0.47, while the United States has a coefficient of about 0.42,  compared with 0.32 in the mid-’70s.

China’s growth rate since 1978 — an average of 9.5 percent — is unprecedented. We need to learn from economic research whether the growth of both gross domestic product and income inequality are merely associations or whether there is a causal relationship. If GDP cannot grow without increasing inequality, researchers should try to figure out the optimal range of inequality that will permit the highest rate of economic growth.

Bertrand Horwitz, Asheville, N.C.

When I read James Q. Wilson’s statement that “making the poor more economically mobile has nothing to do with taxing the rich and everything to do with finding and implementing ways to encourage” the poor to join the legitimate workforce, I thought, “Good point. But how can we make this happen, and who’s going to pay for it?”

Mr. Wilson’s answer appeared to come near the end of the article, when he suggested we implement a “social impact bond,” whereby private investors and foundations pay for programs to help low-income people get jobs. If the programs are successful, the government reimburses the private enterprises; if not, they get no public monies.

So, where is government going to get the money to pay these private companies if they are successful? Taxes, of course. And how can we do that if the rich aren’t paying their fair share?

Jeff Gates, Silver Spring

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James Q. Wilson’s discussion of economic inequality in the United States is an example of misdirection. He tried to reduce widespread concern about inequality’s corrosive effects to a question of whether pure redistribution would solve our problems.

His incomplete picture hid the fact that income mobility has declined in the United States, that we are now less mobile than other advanced societies and that the loss of economic opportunity in this country results from the malign influence of great wealth on governance.

Jim Klumpner, Silver Spring

The writer is a former chief Democratic economist for the Senate and House budget committees.