What Does the One Percent Owe You?

(Image: inequality.cash)

(Image: inequality.cash)

Making economic statistics engaging can be devilishly difficult, especially when those stats span over decades. Okay, the rich are getting richer and the poor are struggling, but just what exactly, you might be wondering, do the inequality numbers mean specifically for me?

Brian Krohn and Jon Keskitalo take this question head on with their imaginative new website, inequality.cash. The site crunches the latest income and wealth inequality data into an interactive online tool that lets visitors plug in their current income and net worth and calculate what that income and net worth would be today if inequality in the United States had remained at 1971 levels.

We caught up with one of the creators of inequality.cash to chat about their fascinating contribution to the inequality debate.

Inequality.org: What does inequality.cash do?

Brian Krohn: Our website inequality.cash has one simple goal: to translate U.S. economic disparities into terms of cold hard cash that can inspire individuals to advocate for policy change.

We’ve all heard about how the 1 percent’s income and wealth have grown over the last 40 years while the rest of us have been left behind. But the data can be hard to come by and the concepts behind growing inequality can get complicated. Our inequality.cash site simply shows how much better you would be doing today if wealth and income distributions were what they were 40 years ago — and they weren’t all that fair 40 years ago!

Most of us, our site shows, would be over $114,000 better off. In other words, the 1 percent have increased their incomes and kept over $100,000 of wealth out of our pockets, effectively denying us a raise of $11,000 per year.

Inequality.cash lets you calculate exactly what your wealth and income would be if your dollars hadn’t landed in the pockets of the 1 percent.

Inequality.org: What did you hope to accomplish when you created this website? 

Brian Krohn: Our goal is making inequality a little more real to people. So many people in America are struggling to make ends meet. Just imagine what an additional $11,000 a year could do in your life. Now imagine what that $11,000 could do for a single mother working two jobs at the minimum wage.

Brian Krohn: I worry about inequality because concentrating wealth and income at the top is a really inefficient way to spur innovation and the betterment of society.

I strongly believe in the value of enabling as many people as possible. If wealth were spread out more evenly, then more people would have the resources to address the challenges in their lives and communities through social, technical, and business innovation.

Inequality.org: What do see as inequality’s prime driver?

Brian Krohn: That is certainly a question for the ages. Old school economists like Marx and Kuznets have proposed that inequality arises deterministically from primary causal factors, but now, with a lot more data at our finger tips, we can say that isn’t the case. Rather, inequality arises from complex macroeconomic interactions — the rate of return on capital, for example and the economy’s growth rate — that are influenced both by a country’s policies and its history. So a lot of possible underlying drivers can cause increased inequality.

But policy determines if that inequality is actually realized. If we want to address inequality, we will need to have flexible policies that can address changing economic drivers.

To take it one step further, policy is simply collective decision making. Ultimately, we as a society need to decide what level of inequality is acceptable and work together to develop policies to keep inequality in check.

Ultimately, because a society is made up of individuals, moral decisions are made by all of us, as individuals. So I would argue that the primary driver of the inequality that we see today is a result of a bunch of individuals deciding that the current level of inequality is morally okay.

This view — that everything comes back to individuals making choices about being OK with inequality — helps explain why we built the inequality.cash site. We wanted to make inequality real to individual people and frame it as a moral question. Do you think it is OK for someone to “steal” $100,000 from you? Most people would say “no,” and yet over the last 40 years we have seen a steady rise in inequality.

Of course, the framing of inequality.cash implies that the 1 percent are the morally bankrupt. But the moral responsibility actually falls on our laps. What are we, what are you, doing to address inequality?

Inequality.org: Have any other anti-inequality efforts in the works?

Brian Krohn: I love the idea of social impact ventures, businesses that believe that we can all do well while also doing good. I have started socially minded startups in areas of local food, health IT, and technology accessibility.

Inequality.org is a project at the Institute for Policy Studies.