I am furious. I was scrolling through my Facebook feed this week and learned that my friend Steve Horwitz had written almost 3,000 words in a single day in his new book chapter on inequality. For perspective, that’s about 12 pages, double-spaced.
So of course I’m enraged! My word count for the day was … zero.
In what world is it fair that Steve Horwitz could write 3,000 words in one day while I wrote none? After all, I have a lot of very good reasons for having not gotten anything written that day. I went to the gym, and then after I got to the office I spent the entire morning discussing Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics at Samford’s faculty Great Ideas Summer Institute. (And besides, my computer is messed up, so I couldn’t write on it!) After that I went to have lunch with my dad, then I caught up on some reading, then I went home to take care of the kids, then I fixed and ate dinner, and then.…
It’s completely unfair.
Completely and totally unfair.
The just and right solution? Redistribution. It’s only fair that some of Steve’s word count be redistributed to me. After all, I work hard, and as you can tell from what I wrote above I had a lot of obstacles that Steve didn’t have to overcome. Why should he get the huge word count while I finish the day with a zero?
Three Lessons for Income Inequality
This admittedly absurd example of word-count inequality can teach us at least three important things about income inequality:
- People make different choices. I could have spent the day writing about inequality, like Steve. I chose to do other things. That’s pretty easy. We observe income inequality because some people are willing to give up a lot to earn high incomes while others aren’t.
We professors like to flatter ourselves into thinking we could earn a lot more money doing something else. We forgo that income for flexibility and job satisfaction. It can be pretty misleading to compare money incomes (or word counts) and assert that someone is being wronged. Given the option, I wouldn’t trade places with anyone on the Forbes 400. It’s far from clear that there’s an injustice in the fact that they have more wealth and higher incomes than I do.
- People are in different places in life. Steve has been doing this longer than I have, and he has more experience. His kids are older. Et cetera. The appropriate comparison would be over the life cycle. Just like comparing my word count on any one day to Steve’s is misleading, comparing my yearly income to (for example) my dad’s is misleading. He’s a year away from retirement and finishing his peak earning years. I’m at least 25 years from retirement.
- The hunt for other people’s money or word counts teaches us something useful about the wastefulness of the political process. In the time I spent trying (unsuccessfully) to get some of Steve’s words redistributed to me, I could have been doing anything else — like increasing my own output. The time, effort, and energy I spent trying instead to redistribute Steve’s output is lost forever, just as the time, effort, and energy people spend trying to get their hands on other people’s stuff through the political process or through common burglary will be lost forever.
Obviously, although these three lessons are important, they don’t explore the full range of possible causes and consequences of inequality. If Steve got to his almost 3,000 words by downloading someone else’s paper and replacing the author’s name with “Steve Horwitz,” then that would be a pretty serious problem.
It does show us that it’s not a good idea to covet a colleague’s word count. In doing so, I would make an ass of myself.