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Defending the One Percent

  • N. Gregory Mankiw

Imagine a society with perfect economic equality. Then, one day, this egalitarian utopia is disturbed by an entrepreneur with an idea for a new product. Think of the entrepreneur as Steve Jobs as he develops the iPod, J. K. Rowling as she writes her Harry Potter books, or Steven Spielberg as he directs his blockbuster movies. The new product makes the entrepreneur much richer than everyone else. How should the entrepreneurial disturbance in this formerly egalitarian outcome alter public policy? Should public policy remain the same, because the situation was initially acceptable and the entrepreneur improved it for everyone? Or should government policymakers deplore the resulting inequality and use their powers to tax and transfer to spread the gains more equally? In my view, this thought experiment captures, in an extreme and stylized way, what has happened to US society over the past several decades. Since the 1970s, average incomes have grown, but the growth has not been uniform across the income distribution. The incomes at the top, especially in the top 1 percent, have grown much faster than average. These high earners have made significant economic contributions, but they have also reaped large gains. The question for public policy is what, if anything, to do about it.

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File URL: http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/jep.27.3.21
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Article provided by American Economic Association in its journal Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Volume (Year): 27 (2013)
Issue (Month): 3 (Summer)
Pages: 21-34

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Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:27:y:2013:i:3:p:21-34
Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.27.3.21
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  1. Alesina, Alberto F & Ichino, Andrea & Karabarbounis, Loukas, 2007. "Gender Based Taxation and the Division of Family Chores," CEPR Discussion Papers 6591, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  2. N. Gregory Mankiw & Matthew Weinzierl, 2009. "The Optimal Taxation of Height: A Case Study of Utilitarian Income Redistribution," NBER Working Papers 14976, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Cronqvist, Henrik & Fahlenbrach, Rüdiger, 2013. "CEO contract design: How do strong principals do it?," Journal of Financial Economics, Elsevier, vol. 108(3), pages 659-674.
  4. Thurow, Lester C, 1971. "The Income Distribution as a Pure Public Good," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 85(2), pages 327-36, May.
  5. Steven N. Kaplan, 2012. "Executive Compensation and Corporate Governance in the U.S.: Perceptions, Facts and Challenges," NBER Working Papers 18395, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Thomas Piketty & Emmanuel Saez, 2003. "Income Inequality In The United States, 1913-1998," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 118(1), pages 1-39, February.
  7. Mirrlees, James A, 1971. "An Exploration in the Theory of Optimum Income Taxation," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 38(114), pages 175-208, April.
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