I just attended a speech by Robert Reich, a very prominent pundit and Secretary of Labor under President Clinton. He opened by asking the audience to suppose he was a genie. As a genie, he could snap his fingers and automatically create a new world order in which there is more inequality of wealth, but everyone, even at the lowest level, is more wealthy than they otherwise would have been. He asked the audience if they would want the genie to bring that about. Being an audience in Berkeley, a very small minority (including myself) raised hands. This scenario, he argued, would be dangerous because people generally care more about their wealth in comparison with others than about their absolute level of wealth. So resentment over inequality would fester, and eventually would burst.
After his speech I went up to the stage to talk to him. I asked him to consider his genie scenario on a global scale. In the third world there are millions of people on the brink of starvation. For them, a change in their absolute level of wealth could be a matter of life and death. I asked him, "Isn't actual starvation in the third world more important than resentment over inequality in the first?" He responded that there are real ways that inequality can harm a person. Before he could continue, I asked, "Are they worse than starving?" Mr. Reich was uncharacteristically speechless, momentarily. Then, my friend who, unbeknownst to me had come up to the stage too, blurted out, "Well, yes, in some cases." Then some others in the crowd said some things, and instead of answering my question, Robert Reich said, "I'll let you guys argue it out," and moved on to other audience members.
I was extremely frustrated. Robert Reich is one of the most influential economic thinkers on the left. He's on National Public Radio every week, and he's regularly featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and innumerable other publications. If economic policy drastically lurches to the left, it will largely be because of him and other thought-leaders, like NY Times columnist Paul Krugman. So, for him it's not necessarily an academic question. If he convinces enough people from his media pulpit, he could actually bring about a huge change. And the change he wants is to reduce absolute wealth for the sake of greater equality. Since absolute, not relative, poverty is a matter of life and death to millions of people, such a change would push a great many people off the starvation brink. Given the stakes involved, and given his position, Robert Reich should have had a ready answer to my question.