For years, the idea that inequality, per se, is economically neutral has been the mainstream view not just among conservatives but among most Americans outside the further reaches of the political Left. There might be ideological or ethical reasons to object to a growing gap between the rich and the rest. But economic reasons? No.He adds, however, that that may be beginning to change. Here's the meat of his argument:
The rich save—that is, invest—15 to 25 percent of their income, [Joseph] Stiglitz writes, whereas those on the lower rungs consume most or all of their income and save little or nothing. As the country’s earnings migrate toward the highest reaches of the income distribution, therefore, you would expect to see the economy’s mix of activity tip away from spending (demand) and toward investment.
That is fine up to a point, but beyond that, imbalances may arise. As Christopher Brown, an economist at Arkansas State University, put it in a pioneering 2004 paper, “Income inequality can exert a significant drag on effective demand.” Looking back on the two decades before 1986, Brown found that if the gap between rich and poor hadn’t grown wider, consumption spending would have been almost 12 percent higher than it actually was. That was a big enough number to have produced a noticeable macroeconomic impact. Stiglitz, in his book, argues that an inequality-driven shift away from consumption accounts for “the entire shortfall in aggregate demand—and hence in the U.S. economy—today.”
True, saving and spending should eventually re-equilibrate. But “eventually” can be a long time. Meanwhile, extreme and growing inequality might depress demand enough to deepen and prolong a downturn, perhaps even turning it into a lost decade—or two.
Rauch then presents another potential hazard stemming from income inequality -- too much credit:
...“Cynical as it may seem,” Raghuram Rajan, a finance professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, wrote in his 2010 book, Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy,“easy credit has been used as a palliative throughout history by governments that are unable to address the deeper anxieties of the middle class directly.” That certainly seems to have happened in the years leading to the mortgage crisis. Marianne Bertrand and Adair Morse, also of Chicago’s business school, have found that legislators who represent constituencies with higher inequality are more likely to support the easing of credit. Several papers by International Monetary Fund economists comparing countries likewise find support for the “let them eat credit” approach. And credit splurges, they find, bring on instability and current-account deficits.
You can see where the logic leads. The economy, propped up on shaky credit, becomes more vulnerable to shocks. When a recession comes, the economy takes a double hit as banks fail and credit-fueled consumer spending collapses. That is not a bad description of what happened in the 1920s and again during these past few years. “When—as appears to have happened in the long run-up to both crises—the rich lend a large part of their added income to the poor and middle class, and when income inequality grows for several decades,” the IMF’s Michael Kumhof and Romain Rancière wrote, “debt-to-income ratios increase sufficiently to raise the risk of a major crisis.”
But wait. Which is it? Does inequality depress demand? Or does it inflate credit bubbles that maintain demand? Unfortunately, the answer can be both. If inequality is severe enough, there could be enough of it to cause the country to inflate a dangerous credit bubble and still not offset the reduction in demand.
Furthermore, it is not apparent that government efforts to juice the economy through an easing of credit are driven by income inequality and concerns over relative welfare. Rather, voter complaints over the economy that prompt such efforts usually are made from an absolute perspective -- typically items such as joblessness or stagnant incomes. Rare is the voter who has both a job and steadily rising income, but nonetheless cites the economy as a concern because their income isn't rising as quickly as the top 1 percent.
The last paragraph, meanwhile, is rather convenient -- inequality both prompts an ease of credit while depressing demand? C'mon...
And, no, we’re not finished. Inequality may also be destabilizing in another way. “Of every dollar of real income growth that was generated between 1976 and 2007,” Rajan wrote, “58 cents went to the top 1 percent of households.” In other words, for decades, more than half of the increase in the country’s GDP poured into the bank accounts of the richest Americans, who needed liquid investments in which to put their additional wealth. Their appetite for new investment vehicles fueled a surge in what Arkansas State’s Brown calls “financial engineering”—the concoction of exotic financial instruments, which acted on the financial sector like steroids.
Those changes, the French economists Jean-Paul Fitoussi and Francesco Saraceno wrote in a 2010 paper, “help explain why the expansion of the financial sector was so out of touch with the economy. And why, for example, in the U.S., the financial sector represented about 40 percent of the total profit of the economy.” Alas, when the recession struck, the financial sector’s gigantism and complexity helped turn what might have been a brush fire into a meltdown.
SPIEGEL: Don't the rich also give something in return? In Germany, the upper one percent contributes almost a quarter to the tax revenue, and the top ten percent more than half of the taxes. Isn't that an appropriate share?
Stiglitz: I don't know about the German numbers. What I can say is that the top one percent in the United States has an average tax rate of less than 30 percent of their reported income, and the large proportion who take much of their income as capital gains pay far less. And we know that they are not reporting all of their income.
On [the inequality issue] issue, Americans seem by intuition to be flaming lefties. A study published last year by scholars from Harvard Business School and Duke University asked Americans which country they would rather live in — one with America’s wealth distribution or one with Sweden’s. But they weren’t labeled Sweden and America. It turned out that more than 90 percent of Americans preferred to live in a country with the Swedish distribution.
Perhaps nothing gets done because, in polls, Americans hugely underestimate the level of inequality here. Not only do we aspire to live in Sweden, but we think we already do.
While the observations of Americans' behavior is completely at odds with their pronouncements about preferring to live in Sweden, it nicely comports with the theory that they assess their welfare from an absolute perspective rather than a relative one.