Jeff Jacoby

Obsessing over other people's riches isn't healthy. In a relatively free society, wealth is typically earned. There are exceptions, of course. Some people cheat their way to a fortune; some are just lucky; some pull political strings.

But on the whole, Americans with a lot of money have usually produced more, worked harder, aimed higher, or seen further than the rest of us. Inequality is built into the human condition, and the world is generally better off when people of uncommon talent and industry are free to climb as high as their abilities will take them.

If income inequality were off the charts and upward mobility were now a thing of the past, the president's claim that this is the "defining challenge of our time" might be more convincing. That isn't what the data show.

According to a 2010 Congressional Budget Office report, income inequality stands only slightly higher now than the average of the past 30 years. And as the Tax Foundation notes, there is less inequality today (as measured by income) than during Bill Clinton's last two years in the White House, since peaks have usually occurred during times when the economy was booming.

This is still a land of significant income mobility. "A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top," Obama laments. "A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top." But why should that be an indictment? It means that even Americans who start out in the wealthiest income bracket get no guarantees — at least a third of them are likely to slip down the ladder. And taxpayers starting at the bottom aren't condemned to lifelong poverty. Many will move to higher income groups (nearly 60 percent did so in less than a decade, according to one study). Some will make it all the way to the top.

To be sure, it has grown harder under this administration to climb up from the lowest quintile. But that has little to do with the "millionaires and billionaires" the left so often vilifies. It has much more to do with government policies that have undermined work incentives, increased dependency, and priced the low-skilled unemployed out of the labor market.

No, Mr. President. The "defining challenge of our time" isn't to end inequality or redistribute the income of the wealthy. Far more important is to get the government's clammy hand out of the way, and enable more of the poor to climb their way to success.

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for