Pretty decent interview over at The Browser with MIT economist Daren Acemoglu about inequality. I agree with some of what he said, though certainly not everything. But this bit is important, where he explains the forces driving inequality:
One is that technology has become even more biased towards more skilled, higher earning workers than before. So, all else being equal, that will tend to increase inequality. Secondly, we’ve been going through a phase of globalisation. Things such as trading with China – where low-skill labour is much cheaper – are putting pressure on low wages. Third, and possibly most important, is that the US education system has been failing terribly at some level. We haven’t been able to increase the share of our youth that completes college or high school. It’s really remarkable, and most people wouldn’t actually guess this, but in the US, the cohorts that had the highest high-school graduation rates were the ones that were graduating in the middle of the 1960s. Our high-school graduation rate has actually been declining since then. If you look at college, it’s the same thing. This is hugely important, and it’s really quite shocking. It has a major effect on inequality, because it is making skills much more scarce then they should be.
Acemoglu also gives an interesting take on how the Reagan tax cuts may have increased inequality (bold for emphasis):
Personally don’t think that’s the main thing, though it certainly played a role. It played a role for capital income. When you look at the top 0.1%, many of them are capital earners. So if you tax capital heavily, then the rich are not going to have as much capital left and capital income is not going to be as unequally distributed. There is a very mechanical effect from taxation there. But there are two other, more subtle, effects from taxation. One is that more progressive taxation – higher taxes at the top – may discourage people from working very hard and putting in effort. That will reduce their earnings and thus inequality. That may be inefficient, but it’s one of the things that happen when you have high taxes.
Secondly, it might change the way in which people bargain with their companies and engage in “rent-seeking” activities in order to increase their pay or their bonuses. In the extreme – and I don’t think this contributes a lot, but just to illustrate – if top incomes were taxed at 99%, then no CEO would be tempted to do semi-illegal things in order to increase his pay, because there would be nothing to gain from doing so. If the top tax rate is 30%, on the other hand, and CEOs get pay from options, they may be tempted to do things like the Enron CEO, Kenneth Lay, did, because they get a lot of money in return. So while high tax rates at the top may inefficiently reduce these people’s labour supply, it may also reduce their rent-seeking activities.