|Income inequality is an important and complex issue that faces every society. The challenge of managing inequality from a policy perspective is not merely a political concern, but one that is fundamentally economic, psychological, sociological, historical, philosophical, and geographic in nature. In this proposed trans-disciplinary course, students will engage the diverse literature on income inequality to develop a nuanced understanding of the issue and, ultimately, develop a policy proposal to manage rising income inequality with a multifaceted approach.
Political/Philosophical: The study of politics is the study of distribution. Income inequality is the philosophical and ideological basis for competition in democratic politics throughout the world. All democratic party-systems are, to varying extents, structured around class interests and, related to this, the role of government in influencing the distributive effects of economic markets. In the proposed class we will examine the distributive nature of political conflict around the world, with particular focus on the United States in comparative perspective, to understand what leads to greater or lesser income inequality. In these discussions, we will address how political institutions influence the salience of inequality and the tools used by governments to address distributive conflict.
Economic: Classic models of the effects of inequality on politics come from the field of economics. In early work using stark formalizations, increasing income inequality is shown to drive preferences for increased government spending and redistribution. We will look at these models and subsequent work that has questioned the validity of these theories. We will also learn how inequality is calculated using economic statistics, the variance in these measures, and their theoretical implications. Finally, we will analyze inequality as an independent variable that may influence other important economic outcomes, such as growth and development.
Psychological: Inequality is not a simple distributive concern, but one that is strongly influenced by psychology and culture. Inequality is known to have psychological effects on those who experience poverty or perceived economic or political injustice. Inequality also influences the psychology and sociology of those at the higher ends of the income spectrum, including shaping beliefs about the distribution of skills, merit, and effort in society. These psychological and cognitive effects are inseparable from political preferences on redistributive policy and the two will be examined in tandem.
Historical: The United States has low government redistribution and high income inequality in comparison with other industrialized countries. The reasons for this difference between the USA and other high-income countries cannot be simply explained by ideological exceptionalism amongst Americans. Rather, U.S. policy toward income inequality is a complex process that is not easily understandable without a view to historical economic and political development. Similarly, European approaches to inequality reflect historical development that has a path-dependent effect on current political debate.
Sociological/Geo-Spatial: Inequality is not only caused by economic or political forces, but is affected by choices made by individuals. A significant body of literature in sociology suggests that many individuals prefer to live and work in relatively homogenous groups, whether informed by political, racial, ethnic, or income differences. We will investigate these sociological and related psychological bases for “otherness.” These groupings inform citizen preferences on politics and, along with other socio-demographic factors, has resulted in a process of geographic self-sorting that influences political representation based on geographic representation, and has contributed to dramatic political polarization in the United States.