White: Speaking of politics, you identify several issues that contribute to growing income inequality, including political sway in the form of lobbying, rent-seeking, and under-investment in public good. Is there one factor you think is more problematic than the others?
Leicht: I think one of the biggest things is disinvestment in public goods. When you produce extreme amounts of inequality, then there's a segment of the population that can basically purchase private access to just about anything that they want. They can live in a gated community, they can have a private police force, they can send their children to private schools, they can send their high-school graduates to private universities. They can set up their own enclave neighborhoods. So when inequality gets to a certain extreme and you can opt out of all those things, then suddenly the welfare of your neighbors is not something you have to deal with or take care of.
White: And you say that, for instance, just helping more kids get into those fancy schools won’t necessarily help—that education isn’t a sure fix?
Leicht: It’s not entirely clear that the labor market is actually producing the quality jobs that college graduates are supposed to take. A lot of college graduates are taking jobs that don't require a college education. The second problem is that the value of a college diploma is inversely related to the number of people that have it. So if you increase the number of people with a college degree, the college-wage premium will probably disappear. Or it will only grow because the unfortunate few who don’t have a college degree will make practically nothing.
White: Are there any other commonly discussed fixes that you don’t subscribe to?
Leicht: There’s also this idea that inequality would shrink if the poor would simply get married. The people who are not married have different social characteristics than the people who are married. Simply marrying them off isn't going to make them better off because of their potential pool of spouses. The education argument is kind of an extension of that. Just because the people who have college educations now are better off than people who don’t, doesn't mean that if everybody who didn't have a college education had one, they would receive the same benefits in the future.
White: Okay, so what should the country be focusing on instead to realistically chip away at inequality?
Leicht: I think we need to focus more directly on labor-market policies that increase people's earnings and increase the steadiness of their jobs. In the end, fighting income inequality is about fighting income inequality. It's not about closing educational gaps or getting more people married, or creating a diverse pool of Fortune 500 CEOs.
White: You write, “The basic legitimacy of the market system is eroded as the relationship between what you do and what you get becomes indirect and obscure.” I thought that was a really interesting point. Can you talk to me a little about how much meritocracy has already eroded?