January 17, 2006

The Rich Will Always Be With Us

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 10:38 pm

While looking for something else, I came across an article on power laws, and specifically how power laws describe the distribution of blog traffic. The short version is:

In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.

power law distribution in blog trafficThis chart from Shirky’s article illustrates the power law distribution at work in blogs as of about three years ago. Since the larger the number of choices, the steeper the power law curve, the chart for blogs today would show an even more severe disparity between traffic for “A listers” and “long tail” blogs (like the one you’re reading at the moment).

All of which got me thinking about Jesus’ statement that “the poor will always be with you”. The power law distribution tells us something else: the rich will always be with us. Communism tried to do away with the rich, but failed miserably: the political elite in the USSR were every bit as wealthy in comparison to the masses as the capitalist elite in the US. The power law distribution holds in any population larger than a commune or a kibutz.

Still, many Christians have spent a lot of time worrying about the rich as though they are the source of all poverty. But the rich are merely a fact of nature, an inevitable result of the power law distribution. We need to forget about the rich, and spend more time worrying about the poor.

While Jesus said that the poor would always be with us, he means this descriptively, not prescriptively. He is not giving us a new commandment to “make sure you don’t get rid of the poor”. He is stating a fact that has proved true from then until now. If we are going to learn from the power laws, we need to worry about raising the well-being of those at the end of the long tail, not impoverishing the 100 richest people in the world.

The shape of the power law distribution remains constant, but its steepness does not. The curve for feudal societies, I imagine, was much steeper than ours is today. Upward mobility, unimpeded by arbitrary obstacles, has the affect of flattening out the curve (think universal access to high quality K-college education). Also, tax policy can have an important affect: progressive tax rates, estate taxes and capital gains tax rates all can flatten out or steepen the curve.

These progressive tax policies aren’t there to steal from the rich (and they don’t) and they aren’t there to discourage economic growth (and they don’t). These tax policies aren’t about the rich at all — they are about providing opportunity and mobility to all of us so that we can live in a society with a power law distribution that is flatter rather than steeper. This is the utilitarian argument for progressive tax policies — a flatter curve means a more stable, propserous, civilized and dynamic society. It is a more ethical and moral society. And I would argue, a more Christian society, in that the power of the power law is just a bit more humane.

But regardless, the rich will still be with us.


  1. I’ll buy that.

    Comment by wildwest — January 18, 2006 @ 6:00 am

  2. Thanks for that outstanding insight, Bob. I like the way you think.

    Comment by newquaker — January 18, 2006 @ 7:40 pm

  3. I think you make a very important point here. Making the curve a little flatter would benefit a lot of people at the bottom, while still letting the rich keep their earthly treasures.

    On a side note, almost inevitably when I hear Jesus’ quote about the poor, a part of it gets left out. What he said was, “You always have the poor with you, and you can show them kindness whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” (Mark 14:7, emphasis mine.) Why is it so easy for people to forget the middle clause of that sentence?

    Comment by BruceA — January 20, 2006 @ 8:43 pm

  4. You confuse flattening the curve with raising the entire scale. The former is impossible short of heaven (the gist of Jesus’ statement and the experience of Communism). The latter, thank goodness (and Reagan) is fact (e.g., see http://www.heritage.org/Research/Welfare/bg1713.cfm) Such scale-raising is a result not of progressive tax policy but of freedom and opportunity by individuals. Children of God fulfilling their potential, not faceless agencies making them dependent on a Godless government. The former Eastern Bloc has learned this lesson better than we have with low flat tax rates. Putting money in the hands of bureaucrats is not the same as voluntary distribution by individual, charitable human beings motivated by the Holy Spirit.

    Comment by Kobayashi Maru — February 27, 2006 @ 2:31 am

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