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

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But as he sees it, the widening of inequality has created an unhealthy economy, even for people like him.

"If you have a society where the people at the very tippy top accumulate all of the resources, you choke the economy to death," he says.

Mr. Hanauer says that investors and entrepreneurs like himself play an important role in job creation, but that the ability of the middle class to buy products is even more crucial.

"Steve Jobs didn't launch the iPhone in Bangladesh or the Congo. The iPhone is nothing without millions of people who can afford to buy it," says Hanauer, who has recently co-authored a political-economy book called "Gardens of Democracy."

Many economists, to greater or lesser extents, support Hanauer's general point: that a more balanced distribution of income would probably help economic growth.

If the share of earnings going toward pay for labor (as opposed to corporate profits) had held constant in recent years, then overall activity in the economy "would be a bit higher than it is now," says Nigel Gault, chief US economist at the forecasting firm IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass.

Inequality may be affecting growth in other ways, Mr. Gault adds. Disparities of income can mean that people lose faith that there's a fair economic playing field and that hard work will pay off. It can also mean that millions of people lack access to a good education. To the degree that these negative forces are operating, America is failing to tap the potential of its "human capital."

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