Other things being equal, income equality is better than inequality. But other things are NOT equal. The easiest way to make incomes more equal in the short run is to have a recession.
Much has been made of growing income inequality since 1979, but very little attention has been paid to which of the four presidental administrations preceding Barack Obama increased income equality and which ones reduced it. In short, the two presidents whose terms involved improving income equality were the two George Bushes and the two whose terms were associated with worsening after-tax income equality were Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. It is probably not an accident that the two presidents in whose administrations the GDP grew the most were the two presidents whose time in office coincided with worsening income equality.
The president under whom the poorest quintile enjoyed the largest increase in after-tax household income was George W. Bush. And the two administrations under whom the richest quintile and richest 1 percent fared the worst were the two Presidents Bush. Among Barack Obama’s four immediate predecessors, the two biggest income equalizers were George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
Just to be clear, I am not pining for the good old days of the economy of George W. Bush.
But George W. Bush was the most successful of our recent past presidents in achieving very substantial increases in incomes for the poorest quintile (+18.4%), while keeping gains for the richest quintile and richest 1 percent at modest levels. For example, under Bush the Younger, the incomes of the richest 1 percent rose only 6.5 percent in eight years, compared to a staggering 84 percent under Clinton and 91 percent under Reagan.
If you would rather have Bill Clinton’s economy than George W. Bush’s economy – and I definitely would – then as a practical matter you probably don’t care overmuch about income equality.