At last night's GOP debate, Sen. Rand Paul was asked about the rise of income inequality in the United States. CEOs, moderator Gerard Baker said, now earn about 300 times what a typical worker makes. Does the widening gap between the rich and the poor matter?
Rand Paul responded by arguing, "I think that we ought to look where income inequality seems to be the worst. It seems to be worst in cities run by Democrats…"
The question itself overstated the relative difference between CEO salaries and those of typical workers. (As The Washington Post's Fact Checker noted earlier this year, the actual story is more complicated, with CEOs at very large firms tending to earn extremely high wages while the majority of CEOs earn quite a bit less.)
But Paul is right about the concentration of inequality in major urban areas. A 2013 report from Brookings ranked the cities with the most and least inequality; big blue-state cities with Democratic mayors tended to be the most unequal, while somewhat smaller cities in red states with Republican mayors tend to demonstrate less inequality.
Rand Paul concluded his response by saying that "the bottom line is, if you want less income inequality, move to a city with a Republican mayor or a state with a Republican governor."
It's a punchy, partisan debate line, and it's true enough as far as it goes. But there are other, perhaps better ways to think about the question.
When it comes to inequality, the important thing isn't really inequality itself—the size of gap between the floor and the ceiling—it's where the floor is set.
Most of the rhetoric around inequality tends to focus on the top—on how much CEOs make, or how wealthy the top sliver of earners are. Instead, the focus should be on the lower end of the spectrum. The most important thing isn't how rich the richest people are, but the conditions and opportunities available for the least well off. You can always reduce inequality by cutting down the peaks, but what really matters is whether you're lifting up the bottom end.