That's where most of us, including me, will object. Leave aside, for the moment, the moral question of whether an increasingly unequal society is inherently unfair. An impressive number of economists, including the liberal Robert H. Frank of Cornell, argue persuasively that inequality is also bad from a practical cost-benefit perspective — that it leads to lower economic growth, more poverty, more fragile families and, as a result, less happiness.
Even Cowen says he isn't as indifferent to the results as his predictions make him sound. If a "hyper-meritocratic" economy produces more poor people, he says, he'd support the idea of a guaranteed minimum income.
But even that wouldn't solve the underlying problem. If Cowen is right, we face a crisis over our national identity. The American dream isn't only of success for a few high achievers; it's about an economy that supports a healthy middle class and opportunity for the striving poor.
So here's a challenge for leaders and citizens on both sides. We already know that wages are falling and inequality is increasing. What do you plan to do about it?
President Obama says he'd invest in education and training, increase the minimum wage and raise taxes on the wealthy — but he's not likely to get much of that from this Congress. Republican leaders say they'd lower taxes, cut government spending and shrink the national debt — but even if those policies spurred economic growth, it's not clear that they'd keep the middle class from turning into an underclass.
New ideas, anyone?
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanuslatimes.com