Growing economic inequality is now becoming a premise of our political debates. Unfortunately, however, conventional government measures of inequality provide a misleading picture of comparative living standards in the modern world.
Most importantly, income inequality is not a good proxy for gauging the rise or decline of economic equality. To be sure, if income equality is to be used as a proxy, incomes have to be calculated accurately. For instance, incomes have to be calculated after tax rather than before tax. Moreover, government transfers have to be included. Finally, for most people income changes significantly over their lives. The amount earned over a lifetime seems more relevant than that earned from year to year. All these adjustments temper the inequality of earned income.
Consumption, however, provides a better measure of economic equality than income. Consumption is the ultimate objective of earning, as Adam Smith himself recognized. And, as I have discussed in a recent essay, Innovation and Inequality, the most important phenomenon for consumption in modern world is that economic value is now more and more created by information that arranges material rather than the material itself. As a result, we all can enjoy a higher level of consumption from the common pool of innovations that rapidly become inexpensive or even free. Income differentials are less important given that common pool.