It is time to address the problem of Exercise Inequality in the US. The vigorous are running, doing push-ups, walking, climbing stairs — leaving the sedentary locked in a lifestyle of couch-sitting and TV viewing.
Recent exercise gains have gone almost exclusively to the top 1% of exercisers. The last decade saw almost no increase in exercise hours going to the bottom 99%.
“Exercise Inequality is finally getting some long-overdue attention,” argues a leading exercise justice advocate. “The top 1% are taking all the exercise hours, leaving nothing for the bottom 99%! Exercise greed is mean-spirited and selfish. We need Exercise Justice in the US!”
This is satire, of course. You don’t hear complaints about “exercise inequality” because obviously the amount of exercise one person “consumes” doesn’t limit the amount of exercise available to others. But substitute the phrase “income inequality” for “exercise inequality” and it will sound familiar. “The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time,” Bernie Sanders warned on his presidential campaign website.
You may “Feel The Bern” on this issue, but worrying about “income inequality” is as misguided as worrying about “exercise inequality.” Money is like exercise. Both are the result of productive effort. Neither are finite things to be fought over, with one person’s “take” reducing what’s available for others. The amount of money anyone gets equals the value of the goods and services he puts forth, just as the amount of exercise anyone gets equals the amount of physical exertion he puts forth.
Much of the anger about income inequality and “the 1%” is caused by a basic misunderstanding of money. The mistake is to see the economic system as a gigantic pie of money, with income earners fighting to carve off as large a piece as they can. The rich, the thinking goes, just happen to be better at getting bigger slices of the money-pie. And the more the rich take, the less money left for the rest.
But there is no money-pie. The economy consists not of money, but of the value created when people produce goods and services and trade them for other people’s goods and services. Money serves merely as a symbolic stand-in for the value that was created. Money isn’t the value. It isn’t the wealth. Don’t be fooled by the shiny coins and colored paper.
Unequal incomes, consequently, are not the result of some people “taking” too much money. Differences in incomes reflect the differences in the value placed on goods and services produced. Suppose Bob decided on January 1 to weave baskets to sell, and over the course of the year, people dropped by Bob’s Basket Boutique and some occasionally paid $100 for a basket. By December 31, Bob sold 300 baskets, and so, after expenses, he earned $25,000 during the year. That is the “value” he created that year. He can take that value, stored in the dollars in his wallet, and trade it for other goods and services.
Across town is Ann, a house-painter. She painted houses all year, and by December 31, after expenses, she cleared $60,000. That is the “value” she created that year, which she can then trade for other goods and services.
Ann and Bob’s incomes are not equal. But Bob’s lower income is not caused by Ann’s higher income. The amount of money one person makes is not directly diminished by the amount of money someone else makes. If Ann decided on January 1 that instead of painting houses she would take the year off and backpack through Nepal, would Bob make more money, since Ann isn’t “taking” so much money? No. The value others place on Bob’s baskets doesn’t increase just because Ann doesn’t earn anything.
Moreover, if Ann is backpacking in the Himalayas instead of painting houses, she is not augmenting the economy with the “value” she creates with her house-painting. A producer of goods and services creates value, so if Ann is off hiking, there is that much less value in the economy, that much less value available to be traded with Bob for a basket.
Of course, the things people value are not always wise or objectively “valuable.” Listen to the basketball fan complain about players and their high salaries. “They pay LeBron $23 million, which is why this ticket costs me $100! It’s outrageous!”
But if there is blame, it should be on the fans for placing such high value on watching basketball. That $23 million is the value people place on seeing LeBron James’s basketball skills in action. The irate fan should actually say “My willingness to pay $100 for a ticket is why LeBron makes $23 million a year. The value people like me place on watching him play is outrageous!”
Solving the problems of poverty and low incomes requires understanding what is happening. There’s no money pie, so increasing a poor person’s income is not done by reducing a rich person’s income. That would have no effect. Instead, it is done by increasing the value of the goods and services the poor person produces. And that is probably going to involve the same avenues traveled by the wealthy: education, training, entrepreneurship. That is where to look. Attacking the 1% may feel good, but it won’t help the poor.