What should we do about income inequality?September 13, 2013: 9:05 AM ET
There is no shortage of data about the problem, but when it comes to addressing income inequality, no one seems to have any good suggestions.
By Adam Lashinsky, senior editor-at-large
FORTUNE -- I find myself thinking more and more these days about income inequality. The New York Times published an astounding article Wednesday citing data that shows that America's top 10% of breadwinners had the largest share of overall wealth (more than 50%) since such stats were first collected. This includes the era of extreme inequality before the Great Depression.
There is no shortage of data points about the problem. Fortune managing editor Andy Serwer focused on inequality in his editor's desk essay recently. In the interest of fairness, he cited the crazy school of thought that it doesn't really matter how few people hold all the wealth; everyone else can still be happy. Serwer (my boss) rejected this nonsensical line of reasoning. So do I. (Andy's fine essay is behind Fortune's pay wall. You'll have to share a little bit of your wealth with us to read it. It's worth it.)
This summer, I read George Packer's gripping, if ultimately unsatisfying, book, The Unwinding, an often heartbreaking description of the plight of the have-nots. I was interested in Packer's book partly because of his description in the New Yorker of a Silicon Valley culture that is so focused on money that it sees value in little else, including the merits of good government, or even making products that improve society.
When it comes to what to do, however, no one seems to have any good suggestions. California seems poised to raise its minimum wage. That's probably a worthy effort, but it won't change the underlying problem. We've already dramatically raised taxes, a topic Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew addressed in my interview with him last month in California. This too is merely an incremental step toward equality. Most people who've thought about this agree that improving education is a key to solving the problem. No quick fixes there.
The irony here, when you dig into the data, is that stock market wealth is the primary explanation for inequality. I find that ironic because broad participation in the stock market was supposed to be the salvation of the American middle class. That's the message the mutual fund industry sold us, for example, before all that went to hell. My pal and former colleague Joe Nocera, now at the New York Times, literally wrote the book on what a great thing it was that more people were going to be able to participate in the stock market, once the preserve of rich folks. (Hey Joe: How about riding this one hard?)
I'm not ending this little screed with a solution. I am asking the question: What should we do?