Last week I had the opportunity to interview Jacques Mistral, a French economist with extensive private and public sector experience who also happens to be a visiting professor at the University this fall. I started with a simple question: Why should students care about economic inequality?

It’s a question that I ask myself every time I write this column, and while I have my own reasons for caring, I think the reasons that Mistral presented do an excellent job of summing it up. His response not only encompassed the moral implications of inequality, but also provided economic, social and political reasons that we should care about as well.

The moral questions are the most obvious ones. Religion plays a role in many people’s moral compasses, and all three major monotheistic religions include mandates to care for the less fortunate among us. Conversations about inequality also tend to include discussions of work ethic, individual responsibility and fairness. Personally, I think it’s a moral imperative to work toward a less unequal society; but the moral question is something that everyone has to examine and decide for themselves. Mistral feels that it’s about finding the right balance of liberty and equality.

There are also more concrete reasons why we should be concerned about rising inequality. On the economic side, Mistral noted that the common belief that inequality is the “price to pay” for an efficient economy doesn’t actually seem to hold. He pointed out the growing body of evidence showing that more equal societies are also more economically successful. The Scandinavian countries are clear examples of this, as well as developing countries like Korea and Taiwan whose economies have seen more success than their more unequal counterparts in Latin America. A 2011 paper put out by the International Monetary Fund is one recent publication that supports this idea; its research showed that lower levels of inequality led to longer and more sustainable periods of growth.

Socially, Mistral argued that the most efficient social protection network would also be the one with the largest constituency. He emphasized health care as a key issue in the question of inequality — unequal distributions of health care not only bring up difficult moral questions, but also often lead to higher health-care costs. In effect, there are many reasons to push for more equal access to healthcare.

In terms of politics, Mistral is not the first person to express concerns about high levels of inequality compromising democracy.

“Money is not a person, and wealth is not free speech,” he argued, contrary to the viewpoint of the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that spending is, in fact, a form of free speech. Therefore, they ruled, independent spending cannot be limited in elections. The result was that the 2012 presidential and congressional races were the most expensive in our nation’s history, with CNN reporting that $4.2 billion had been raised by Nov. 5, 2012. The outsize effects of money in our politics are viewed by many Europeans as “clearly anti-democratic,” Mistral noted.

I have to agree that it’s hard to see multi-million dollar donations supporting candidates and their campaigns as anything other than a fast track to corruption. And with higher inequality, the wealthiest few gain a much larger say in politics at the expense of the rest of the population.

With economic, social and political reasons to decrease inequality, the question then becomes: What can I do about it? Unfortunately, to really decrease the inequality in America will require large-scale changes, which students don’t get much say in aside from how we cast our ballots. Mistral’s advice: Don’t forget to become an educated citizen during your college years. Gaining expertise and knowledge in technical and liberal arts fields is important, but it’s also important to know and understand what’s going on in the world.

University students are going to go on to do great things, and eventually, we’re all going to face a choice between moving toward a more or less equal society.

It’s important that when that time comes, we are able to recognize it, which requires understanding how everything in our society interacts. We need to go into that decision as well-educated citizens, so that we can understand the consequences of our choices and be comfortable with those consequences. In the end, it will be up to us to decide what kind of society we want to become.

Lissa Kryska can be reached at lkkryska@umich.edu.

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