Nicholas Kristof’s Analogy: Agree?

Nick Kristof’s analogy expresses his theory of how to understand the problem of America’s inequities. Do you think this analogy is accurate? What would be better?

Imagine a kindergarten with 100 students, lavishly supplied with books, crayons and toys.

Yet you gasp: one avaricious little boy is jealously guarding a mountain of toys for himself. A handful of other children are quietly playing with a few toys each, while 90 of the children are looking on forlornly — empty-handed.

The one greedy boy has hoarded more toys than all those 90 children put together!

“What’s going on?” you ask. “Let’s learn to share! One child shouldn’t hog everything for himself!”

The greedy little boy looks at you, indignant. “Do you believe in redistribution?” he asks suspiciously, his lips curling in contempt. “I don’t want to share. This is America!”

And then he summons his private security firm and has you dragged off the premises. Well, maybe not, but you get the point.

That kindergarten distribution is precisely what America looks like. Our wealth has become so skewed that the top 1 percent possesses a greater collective worth than the entire bottom 90 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

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  • There are no simple illustrations. Those that focus on Republican ideals will suggest that those 1% should get to play with the toys becaue it was their parent’s tax dollars that paid for them in the first place. Of course that is a distortion, but so is Kristof’s original illustration.

  • Redistribution always sounds good IN THEORY. I wish we had some sort of historical model that demonstrated how it would work on a scale the size of the American population without being inbred with corruption and greed. I think the “size of the class” makes an impact on sharing as well as the fact that the toys (in the illustration) are “common property” in a school…not earned by a handful while others are idle. It is a bit like a “sliding scale” in terms of grading (or “grading on a curve”)…the ones that know the material are penalized by those who don’t prepare or have other “issues.” I don’t know any “formula” for having, as the President says, a “level playing field” without homogenizing people, minimalizing or marginalizing individual achievement and giftedness. I wish I did…I see a full sense of community in the scriptures but there is an over-riding meta-value system (i.e. worldview) that governs the heart and lives of those who adhere to that covenant. In my humble opinion, the reality of “sin” makes the goal of fairness impossible to achieve.

  • Damien

    I have no problem with redistribution as long as it is implemented properly (e.g. by taxing consumption, that is income minus savings and, more generally, in ways that minimize distortions and deadweight loss). That being said, this analogy is very bad.

    1) It doesn’t address just deserts theory, which is the main reason why people oppose redistribution. As Robin notes, given our understanding of how schools typically operate, we must feel moral outrage as the toys were there for all to use and the only way a single child can hoard 90% of the toys is if he behaved immorally (e.g. beating up the other children, “stealing” the toys that they were using, etc.). Would we feel the same moral outrage if we learned, for instance, that this child has all the toys because all the other children exchanged their toys for something that was equally valuable to them? Opponents of redistribution would argue that this is how the world actually works: some have more not because they stole from other people but because they engaged in many mutually-beneficial exchanges. I might be unhappy that finance types made millions while creating zero social or shareholder value. But I don’t have any problem with, say, Jeff Bezos making billions by improving our lives so much.

    2) 90% of the children are empty-handed. This is not an accurate description of 21st-century America? Average income for the bottom 90% is $36,000. Their share of total US income is 53%. Very little compared to what the uber-rich make, but quite a lot by historical and world standards. Even more once you take cost of living into account (compare, for instance, the size of houses in Europe and the US). The analogy makes it sound as if 90% of Americans are homeless and dying of hunger on the streets. The report itself states that the bottom 90% own 27% of the net worth of the nation.

    3) Net worth (i.e. how many toys each child has) is incorrectly conflated with consumption. The toys only have consumption value (including the enjoyment that the wealthy child derives from having so many toys while others have none, assuming he is a very naughty kid indeed). In the real world, much of the wealth owned by the 1% reflects the value of capital that is a complement to the labor of the bottom 90%, makes the 90% more productive and therefore increases their wages. Once you allow for the fact that there is both consumption and investment, you realize that taxing the rich is harder than it sounds and that, unless done carefully, the burden of taxation can fall on the not-so-rich (see for instance

  • MatthewS

    It’s closer to being propaganda than a “precise” image.

    The reality is not as simple as either this classroom nor as the ant and the grasshopper (one worked hard during summer while the other idled). The classroom in Kristof’s telling is magically “lavishly supplied”, and one supposes, lavishly resupplied just as magically. Those who have never had to run the gauntlet of running their own business have absolutely NO IDEA how sternly our government punishes anyone for trying to be productive. Meanwhile, I can point to able-bodied people who sit and watch cable all day long while collecting entitlements…

    It figures into this that while Romney is in the habit of giving a significant percentage of his income to charity (he gave millions per year), Biden had a track record for ten years of giving well under $500 per year. The standard narrative that Biden the democrat must necessarily be more generous or compassionate breaks down there.

  • Andy W.

    For those with a kindergarten understanding of economics the analogy works 🙂

  • MatthewS

    Kristof’s telling ignores the real problems that come with redistribution. Freda Utley’s account is very telling ( ). The government’s desire to create a comfortable collectivism was always out of reach, which made it necessary to stimulate class warfare to jump-start the process. Society was classified in three layers: Kulaki, Seredniaki (“middle peasants”), and Bedniaki (“poor peasants”). The Kulaki were the haves, the wealthy ones. Even if you had two horses instead of one, or two chickens instead of one, you were in danger of being permanently labelled Kulaki.

    The result:
    Precisely those peasants who had the knowledge, skill, and industry to raise Russian agriculture above its medieval level were liquidated. The collective farms were deprived of the men who could have made them function efficiently. And yet the army of city workers sent down to coerce the peasants and manage the collectives took far more from the villages in the shape of wages than the Kulaks had taken as profit. If, by allowing them a larger share of the produce than the other peasants, the Kulaks had been persuaded to run the new farms, instead of being killed off or imprisoned, the new system might have worked. It was, of course, argued that they were irreconcilably hostile to the Soviet state. But they had never been given a chance to be other than hostile. The government discriminated against them, reviled them, and instigated everyone to loathe them. Naturally they hated the Soviet Government. But to argue that they were irreconcilable enemies of the Soviet state is like saying that the Jews in Germany deserve what they get because they hate the Nazi Government which oppresses them.

    This problem is ignored in Kristof’s vision. If the kid who is the “have” has figured out how to get supplies, but he is violently thrown out, who is going to get more supplies? There has arisen a major disincentive for trying to get more supplies even as there has arisen an incentive for not trying.

  • This analogy is absurd for the simple reason that the toys were ‘given’ for no reason and not earned like our modern monetary system.

    Kindergarten shouldn’t be about toys anyway. The teacher should be more worried about grades and, you know, learning. If this teacher really wants redistribution that is truly analogous then they should ‘redistribute’ grades that are earned. Tell the ‘A’ students they are greedy for being smart, working hard and following the rules of the classroom. Give them the class average of ‘C’ along with the kids who flunked. Oh, and good luck with your parent/teacher sessions…

  • Eric

    The issue isn’t redistribution its fairness. It is not fair that one child was allowed to accumulate all the toys without sharing with the others. It is not fair that people with the highest income are paying lower tax rates than those with in the middle class. Sure the rich can afford to give a fortune to charities and there is nothing wrong with that. Good for them, they are sharing. However, giving to charity is not the same as paying taxes. Those charities are typically their pet projects or favorite institution. They aren’t paying to improve low income schools or giving grants for deserving poor college students or to pay interest on the national debt or to pay for the military or the thousands of other necessary, legitimate functions of government. Nobody wants communism, the issue is paying for the necessary functions of government in a fair way.

    Please consider reading the original article before making absurd statements about how absurd the analogy is.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    There is a means of fair redistribution–a near 100% estate tax. In the absence of inherited wealth, everybody starts out in life approximately the same.

    “It figures into this that while Romney is in the habit of giving a significant percentage of his income to charity (he gave millions per year), Biden had a track record for ten years of giving well under $500 per year.”

    As long as Biden’s (and Sarah Palin’s) sons have served in Iraq while Romney’s have studiously avoided such military service, I’d say that wealthy people simply buy their accolades.

  • Mike M

    Unfortunately for everyone but the very few, it is government incentives, subsidies, payments, and bail-outs that have created the uber-rich class. The kid who has all the toys got them because his parents have friends in power. And where did his parents get their money? From the other kids’ parents. As the IRS knows, a little bit of money from a lot of people is A LOT of money.
    This metaphor breaks down much too quickly to serve any purpose other than serving as a lesson as to why and how metaphors break down quickly.

  • I find this analogy by Kristoff very surprisingly simplistic. The current economic problems are as much about how to produce as how to distribute (or redistribute). And then, once people produce, how to tax fairly. So, all the proposals about tax rates, loophole closings, and all the other fees, surcharges, etc., need to be included (really included) in the discussion. The idea that it all boils down to “sharing” and that the 1% don’t want to share is by and large empirically false. According to the reports I’ve seen, even stingy ole’ Romney and his running mate returned 13% and 20% respectively of their taxable incomes to the government. This figure does not include their charitable giving.

    I still don’t know who I’m going to vote for, but I have grown exceedingly weary of editorials like Kristoffs that make it all seem so easy…

    What would be better? I don’t know how to work out income inequities, but maybe we should think of those kindergarten kids as building something together (rather than just playing with toys). What would the analogy look like if we started there?

  • To Unapolegetic Catholic : Romney gives the required ammount to the Mormon church (maybe a little beyond) to be a Mormon in good standing. Sure, that is nice of him, but might have just as much to do with enjoying status in the LDS church as anything else. Imagine if the Vatican decided to track giving and check to see if everyone was tithing properly in order to be a Catholic in good standing? Again, not knocking Romney, just saying his motivation might be a bit different.

    My dad once tried an analogy similar; only he was trying to draw attention to the worldwide inequities. He organized and invited the church people to a missions dinner he hosted gave one steak and all the sides he wanted another a plate of chicken and vegetables and everyone else got rice with pieces of fish stirred in. It just made people angry. I think the point was lost. Yet, that anger in itself, I find interesting. Whether the analogy works or not, people’s outrage and reactions are always fascinating. I wonder sometimes if part of it is simply that yes, the inequities bother us, but we feel helpless to do anything that will bring about real change, and so we try and justify our guilt? Whether the analogy works or breakdown is almost secondary to what does my reaction whenever someone mentions inequity say about me?

  • Marshall

    Somebody having lots of toys is fine as long as all the kids get good nutritional lunches, which isn’t the case right now, metaphorically speaking.

  • Matt Edwards

    But doesn’t this assume that there is a fixed amount of wealth that is to be distributed among people? But wealth isn’t a fixed sum–new wealth can be created.

    What if the class started with zero crayons and the class was asked to go create them. We’d think differently about the guy who created 9 times more crayons than the rest of the class put together. In fact, we’d want to know how he was able to do it and we’d ask him if he could share insights with the rest of the class. If he was willing to give away 20 of the 90 crayons he created, we’d consider him generous.

  • Way too simplistic an analogy.

  • The analogy assumes the size and shape of the toy box is always the same so the number of toys is static…. Neither is there a distinction between the kid who bullies his way into possession of all the toys in contrast to the other kid who looks at a piece of wood or other material and with creativity and imagination makes a toys out of them. Nor does it take into account the boys don’t necessarily want to play with the dolls, and the girls are not necessarily interested in some of the toys the boys like to play with… (Oh what a damnable chauvinistic line that was… but it illustrates market segmentation… so there! )

  • Leslie M.

    While this analogy delivers quite a bit of pathos, it probably doesn’t have a real world corollary. In New York, New York that avaricious kindergarten kid would only be in a classroom with kids that have just as many toys as him so he would probably only share .2% of his toys. These are the children of Kristof’s cocktail party friends and as evidenced by the study below, they don’t get out much.

    In Brooklyn, New York, a place that might more mirror the demographics of that classroom, that child would share (38% according to the study I’m referencing).

    Here is the study:

    There are other ways to redistribute wealth than through the income tax system. Better ways.

  • Eric E

    Let’s assume the analogy takes into account all these things that people are bringing up in the comments. Does that then make it okay for the top kid to have as many toys as the bottom 90 kids?

  • Simplistic, yes.

    But mostly correct.

    Social science research is definitive that higher levers of inequality correlate to unhealthier societies.

    And it is illustrative of how kin/tribe oriented even most Christians are despite Jesus pronouncement that all are defined as our brothers and sisters and neighbors. As parents, we would never treat our children this way, but in the societal aggregate, cognitive dissonance has laden us with this individualistic notion that one human being is somehow a thousand (or more) times greater than another human being. That while it is a blessing to unpack your potentiality and inert possibility to produce fruit, your success is still so dependent upon institutional, cultural, networking and liberal helpings of pure chance.

    And typical, the pushback against calling out the truth always is sprinkled with the absurdity that those decrying inequality are adamant in demanding total exact congruent equal-ness.

  • Andy W. made me LOL. I respect Kristof’s work in ‘half the sky’ and it seems that his heart is in the right place with this analogy. His mind however seems comfortably set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

  • Sharing and redistribution aren’t the same. Sharing is from the heart. Redistribution is a project of the government, where it takes from me what is mine, keeps a cut for itself, and then passes a cut to others.

    One percent hordes, another nine percent play with toys, and the other 90% are empty-handed. I’m sure I’m part of the 90%, firmly in the middle class, and I have plenty of toys. If I wanted to, I could get more toys, but I don’t.

    Mr. Kristof needs to go back to kindergarten. The situation is not as bad as it seems.

  • Jeff Butler

    It is an awful analogy that distorts more than it clarifies. It does not help us to come to a common understanding of the issue and reach positive solutions. Let me add a couple of thoughts to those above.

    Equating wealth with toys prejudices the analogy. Most wealth is not toys or even cash but ownership of investments (stocks, real estate, etc.) hardly play things that one is hoarding so others can’t play with. They are the things which are creating the income that everyone enjoys.

    Income comparisons usually leave out all the government redistribution that is already taking place. Neither poverty rates nor income comparisons reflect benefits that lower income people currently receive, the “toys” that are already being taken and redistributed.

    Significant redistribution is already taking place but not being included in the statistics nor the analogy. Free education. Food stamps. Housing subsidies. Medicaid. Even programs such Social Security and Medicare are re-distributive as currently configured. The 90 aren’t empty and forlorn. Divisive propaganda.

    What is stopping Kristof from redistributing his excess toys?

  • Diane

    I sometimes do get appalled at where private giving ends up–operas, art museums and symphonies, or the private schools the donor’s children attend … I do not object to people doing what they want with their money, but not in lieu of taxes and not with tax write-offs and not with endless applause for a “generosity” that makes their own lives ever more comfortable and removed from others who are less fortunate. That said, I love the arts and my children attended an independent high school, but I believe taxes must come first to serve the common polity.

  • T

    I did not read the whole article; only the above excerpt. Is it simplistic? Of course. Is it needlessly accusatory? Yes. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t tell us anything useful at all. It’s only one angle on a very significant and complicated reality. But that angle is important to know about, namely, the allocation of wealth among the population.

    For some this reality isn’t a problem; for others it will be the only thing that matters. I think it matters, and we need to consider various potential solutions. But casting blame for the current situation won’t be especially helpful.

  • Bob G

    It’s a very poor analogy with an entirely perjorative spin on wealth accumulation. What if the hoarder were generous and polite? What if he gave away 10% and kept the rest? What if the hoarder accumulated the toys by working hard, following the rules and EARNING them while the rest of the class took shortcuts and did not do the work?

    It’s a nonsense piece of writing.

  • P.

    I could be misunderstanding something, but here’s how I see the situation. Johnny and Sally work really hard and as a result, earn many toys. Sue also works really hard, but is stuggling to get three or four toys. Billy and Mary don’t care and just sit around all day. The teacher takes some of Johnny and Sally’s toys and gives them to the school to create programs that will help everyone, particularly Sue. The problem is that some also want to give toys to Billy and Mary even though they didn’t do anything to earn the toys. Now, a new teacher says that Johnny and Sally’s toys need to be redistributed so that there is more fairness, because after all, it’s not fair that some have more toys than others. Johnny and Sally are now mad because they worked hard for their toys. Most children like Johnny and Sally don’t have a problem giving to help Sue, but don’t want their hard earned toys re-distributed to Billy and Mary. So, they hide their toys in another part of the school that is off-limits to their teacher. They also get their parents to vote in a new school board.

  • Mark h

    It seems to me that “UC’s” comparison of Romney and Biden and their charitable giving is at the heart of the problem; and as long as we continue to live in a fallen world, will always be around. Some will be generous and compassionate, and others won’t. There will always be those who hope for the day when humanity will take care of its own and work toward that end, while others believe it has to be mandated. And like P says, there will always be those among who feel like we should do what they are unwilling to do. They could help themselves, but won’t take advantage of the opportunities that are right there. It’s those that can’t help themselves that we should be focusing on.

    My daughter ran in the Chicago marathon this past weekend, helping to raise 1.5 million for World Vision, and fresh water wells for Africa. Isn’t that the better way, that oftentimes goes unnoticed?