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America's big wealth gap: Is it good, bad, or irrelevant?

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President Obama has pitched a "fair share" approach to the economy as a central part of his re-election campaign. In his newly released budget, the president proposes, for example, that investment dividends be taxed at the same rate as wage income for high earners.  And he argues that, down the road, one principle of tax-code reform should be that the very rich pay at least 30 percent of their income in federal taxes.  

The US tax code is an inevitable part of any public debate over issues related to inequality and economic fairness. But economists say past tax policies, which have allowed the wealthy to keep more of their income, aren't the only reason that income gaps have widened.

Other factors that may be at play include an increasingly high-tech economy, which has put a premium on skills and education. Also, whether because of market forces or the policy climate, a rising share of national income has been going to corporations (as profits), while the portion that goes to pay workers has declined. That shift benefits owners of corporate stock.

So long as a boom time kept most people's financial fortunes on the rise, few jumped up and down over the greater concentration of wealth in fewer hands. But the hard times that ensued after the financial system's near-collapse in 2008 have changed that. It's much more top of mind now that the share of people officially deemed to be living in poverty has jumped from about 12.5 percent to 15 percent since 2007, wages are barely rising for the middle class, and many millions more people are out of work.

America has seen the income gap widen before. Often, when class differences moved to center stage, the result has been a political realignment that tilted power and policy at least modestly away from the rich and big business. The 1930s and, before that, the Progressive Era in the early 1900s are prime examples.

But for every individual who is wringing his or her hands over income inequality, there's someone who sees it as the American way.

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