“The cake is a lie”: The fundamental distortions of inequality

July 13, JDN 2457583

Inequality of wealth and income, especially when it is very large, fundamentally and radically distorts outcomes in a capitalist market. I’ve already alluded to this matter in previous posts on externalities and marginal utility of wealth, but it is so important I think it deserves to have its own post. In many ways this marks a paradigm shift: You can’t think about economics the same way once you realize it is true.

To motivate what I’m getting at, I’ll expand upon an example from a previous post.

Suppose there are only two goods in the world; let’s call them “cake” (K) and “money” (M). Then suppose there are three people, Baker, who makes cakes, Richie, who is very rich, and Hungry, who is very poor. Furthermore, suppose that Baker, Richie and Hungry all have exactly the same utility function, which exhibits diminishing marginal utility in cake and money. To make it more concrete, let’s suppose that this utility function is logarithmic, specifically: U = 10*ln(K+1) + ln(M+1)

The only difference between them is in their initial endowments: Baker starts with 10 cakes, Richie starts with $100,000, and Hungry starts with $10.

Therefore their starting utilities are:

U(B) = 10*ln(10+1)= 23.98

U(R) = ln(100,000+1) = 11.51

U(H) = ln(10+1) = 2.40

Thus, the total happiness is the sum of these: U = 37.89

Now let’s ask two very simple questions:

1. What redistribution would maximize overall happiness?
2. What redistribution will actually occur if the three agents trade rationally?

If multiple agents have the same diminishing marginal utility function, it’s actually a simple and deep theorem that the total will be maximized if they split the wealth exactly evenly. In the following blockquote I’ll prove the simplest case, which is two agents and one good; it’s an incredibly elegant proof:

Given: for all x, f(x) > 0, f'(x) > 0, f”(x) < 0.

Maximize: f(x) + f(A-x) for fixed A

f'(x) – f'(A – x) = 0

f'(x) = f'(A – x)

Since f”(x) < 0, this is a maximum.

Since f'(x) > 0, f is monotonic; therefore f is injective.

x = A – x


This can be generalized to any number of agents, and for multiple goods. Thus, in this case overall happiness is maximized if the cakes and money are both evenly distributed, so that each person gets 3 1/3 cakes and $33,336.66.

The total utility in that case is:

3 * (10 ln(10/3+1) + ln(33,336.66+1)) = 3 * (14.66 + 10.414) = 3 (25.074) =75.22

That’s considerably better than our initial distribution (almost twice as good). Now, how close do we get by rational trade?

Each person is willing to trade up until the point where their marginal utility of cake is equal to their marginal utility of money. The price of cake will be set by the respective marginal utilities.

In particular, let’s look at the trade that will occur between Baker and Richie. They will trade until their marginal rate of substitution is the same.

The actual algebra involved is obnoxious (if you’re really curious, here are some solved exercises of similar trade problems), so let’s just skip to the end. (I rushed through, so I’m not actually totally sure I got it right, but to make my point the precise numbers aren’t important.)
Basically what happens is that Richie pays an exorbitant price of $10,000 per cake, buying half the cakes with half of his money.

Baker’s new utility and Richie’s new utility are thus the same:
U(R) = U(B) = 10*ln(5+1) + ln(50,000+1) = 17.92 + 10.82 = 28.74
What about Hungry? Yeah, well, he doesn’t have $10,000. If cakes are infinitely divisible, he can buy up to 1/1000 of a cake. But it turns out that even that isn’t worth doing (it would cost too much for what he gains from it), so he may as well buy nothing, and his utility remains 2.40.

Hungry wanted cake just as much as Richie, and because Richie has so much more Hungry would have gotten more happiness from each new bite. Neoclassical economists promised him that markets were efficient and optimal, and so he thought he’d get the cake he needs—but the cake is a lie.

The total utility is therefore:

U = U(B) + U(R) + U(H)

U = 28.74 + 28.74 + 2.40

U = 59.88

Note three things about this result: First, it is more than where we started at 37.89—trade increases utility. Second, both Richie and Baker are better off than they were—trade is Pareto-improving. Third, the total is less than the optimal value of 75.22—trade is not utility-maximizing in the presence of inequality. This is a general theorem that I could prove formally, if I wanted to bore and confuse all my readers. (Perhaps someday I will try to publish a paper doing that.)

This result is incredibly radical—it basically goes against the core of neoclassical welfare theory, or at least of all its applications to real-world policy—so let me be absolutely clear about what I’m saying, and what assumptions I had to make to get there.

I am saying that if people start with different amounts of wealth, the trades they would willfully engage in, acting purely under their own self interest, would not maximize the total happiness of the population. Redistribution of wealth toward equality would increase total happiness.

First, I had to assume that we could simply redistribute goods however we like without affecting the total amount of goods. This is wildly unrealistic, which is why I’m not actually saying we should reduce inequality to zero (as would follow if you took this result completely literally). Ironically, this is an assumption that most neoclassical welfare theory agrees with—the Second Welfare Theorem only makes any sense in a world where wealth can be magically redistributed between people without any harmful economic effects. If you weaken this assumption, what you find is basically that we should redistribute wealth toward equality, but beware of the tradeoff between too much redistribution and too little.

Second, I had to assume that there’s such a thing as “utility”—specifically, interpersonally comparable cardinal utility. In other words, I had to assume that there’s some way of measuring how much happiness each person has, and meaningfully comparing them so that I can say whether taking something from one person and giving it to someone else is good or bad in any given circumstance.

This is the assumption neoclassical welfare theory generally does not accept; instead they use ordinal utility, on which we can only say whether things are better or worse, but never by how much. Thus, their only way of determining whether a situation is better or worse is Pareto efficiency, which I discussed in a post a couple years ago. The change from the situation where Baker and Richie trade and Hungry is left in the lurch to the situation where all share cake and money equally in socialist utopia is not a Pareto-improvement. Richie and Baker are slightly worse off with 25.07 utilons in the latter scenario, while they had 28.74 utilons in the former.

Third, I had to assume selfishness—which is again fairly unrealistic, but again not something neoclassical theory disagrees with. If you weaken this assumption and say that people are at least partially altruistic, you can get the result where instead of buying things for themselves, people donate money to help others out, and eventually the whole system achieves optimal utility by willful actions. (It depends just how altruistic people are, as well as how unequal the initial endowments are.) This actually is basically what I’m trying to make happen in the real world—I want to show people that markets won’t do it on their own, but we have the chance to do it ourselves. But even then, it would go a lot faster if we used the power of government instead of waiting on private donations.

Also, I’m ignoring externalities, which are a different type of market failure which in no way conflicts with this type of failure. Indeed, there are three basic functions of government in my view: One is to maintain security. The second is to cancel externalities. The third is to redistribute wealth. The DOD, the EPA, and the SSA, basically. One could also add macroeconomic stability as a fourth core function—the Fed.

One way to escape my theorem would be to deny interpersonally comparable utility, but this makes measuring welfare in any way (including the usual methods of consumer surplus and GDP) meaningless, and furthermore results in the ridiculous claim that we have no way of being sure whether Bill Gates is happier than a child starving and dying of malaria in Burkina Faso, because they are two different people and we can’t compare different people. Far more reasonable is not to believe in cardinal utility, meaning that we can say an extra dollar makes you better off, but we can’t put a number on how much.

And indeed, the difficulty of even finding a unit of measure for utility would seem to support this view: Should I use QALY? DALY? A Likert scale from 0 to 10? There is no known measure of utility that is without serious flaws and limitations.

But it’s important to understand just how strong your denial of cardinal utility needs to be in order for this theorem to fail. It’s not enough that we can’t measure precisely; it’s not even enough that we can’t measure with current knowledge and technology. It must be fundamentally impossible to measure. It must be literally meaningless to say that taking a dollar from Bill Gates and giving it to the starving Burkinabe would do more good than harm, as if you were asserting that triangles are greener than schadenfreude.

Indeed, the whole project of welfare theory doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if all you have to work with is ordinal utility. Yes, in principle there are policy changes that could make absolutely everyone better off, or make some better off while harming absolutely no one; and the Pareto criterion can indeed tell you that those would be good things to do.

But in reality, such policies almost never exist. In the real world, almost anything you do is going to harm someone. The Nuremburg trials harmed Nazi war criminals. The invention of the automobile harmed horse trainers. The discovery of scientific medicine took jobs away from witch doctors. Inversely, almost any policy is going to benefit someone. The Great Leap Forward was a pretty good deal for Mao. The purges advanced the self-interest of Stalin. Slavery was profitable for plantation owners. So if you can only evaluate policy outcomes based on the Pareto criterion, you are literally committed to saying that there is no difference in welfare between the Great Leap Forward and the invention of the polio vaccine.

One way around it (that might actually be a good kludge for now, until we get better at measuring utility) is to broaden the Pareto criterion: We could use a majoritarian criterion, where you care about the number of people benefited versus harmed, without worrying about magnitudes—but this can lead to Tyranny of the Majority. Or you could use the Difference Principle developed by Rawls: find an ordering where we can say that some people are better or worse off than others, and then make the system so that the worst-off people are benefited as much as possible. I can think of a few cases where I wouldn’t want to apply this criterion (essentially they are circumstances where autonomy and consent are vital), but in general it’s a very good approach.

Neither of these depends upon cardinal utility, so have you escaped my theorem? Well, no, actually. You’ve weakened it, to be sure—it is no longer a statement about the fundamental impossibility of welfare-maximizing markets. But applied to the real world, people in Third World poverty are obviously the worst off, and therefore worthy of our help by the Difference Principle; and there are an awful lot of them and very few billionaires, so majority rule says take from the billionaires. The basic conclusion that it is a moral imperative to dramatically reduce global inequality remains—as does the realization that the “efficiency” and “optimality” of unregulated capitalism is a chimera.


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