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Looking back at Irving Kristol's 1980 essay "Some Personal Reflections on Economic Well-Being and Income Distribution," as Foreign Affairs recently did, provides a useful intellectual lens from the past to focus the economic conversation today. Kristol argued that economic inequality was "but one manifestation of how nineteenth-century ideologies -- and most especially the socialist ideologies -- have so decisively shaped modern social science." Moreover, he wrote, income distribution does not really change over time so it is, as a subject for study, inconsequential.
Fortunately, economists failed to take his advice; recent studies of inequality reveal the limitation of Kristol's historical perspective. Kristol narrowly focused on one long spell of stable and relatively even distribution. But a careful look at the varying levels of inequality in different countries demonstrates just how much societal divides in wealth really matter. Countries with high inequality are far more likely