Inequality is a term so apparently self-evident that it shows up everywhere in political discourse on both the left and the right. Much of that discourse, however, is so simplistic that it is easily dismissed by the other side:
– For the left, inequality is morally wrong—despite the fact that it can accompany rising living standards even for the people on the short end of the stick. A fair number of the 238 cities vying for Google’s second headquarters would probably see a rise in both inequality and the general standard of living if they won (just based on an influx at the high-income end).
– For the right, inequality is good since rich people are the “job creators”, so the happier they are the better—despite the fact that there is no evidence for that logic at all. It also seems rather odd to assert that businessmen are so incompetent as to make hiring decisions based on personal satisfaction rather than opportunities to be staffed.
Despite those points, the effects of inequality are neither uncertain nor hard to understand—it’s just easy to be sloppy about it. This note is an attempt to be more real.
First one must acknowledge that inequality itself is neither bad nor good. What matters is the well-being of the population, including in particular those on the lower end of the scale. For people like Steve Jobs (always the first example) personal wealth is the result of creating an economic engine with benefits to many. It’s hard to argue with that. And you can push it one step further and say that the incentives for innovation in the US economy are an important reason why the US has been able to stay ahead of the technology curve. You can even say that the potential for success is an important part of well-being for many people, so that an economy of pure equality—even in the abstract—is not necessarily a good thing.
None of that, however, tells you very much about the effects of growing inequality in the US. First of all let’s be clear that the increase in inequality is well-established and true for any definition of wealth (income, assets, …) you might want to use.
Further rising inequality here has been no obvious driver of innovation—on the contrary with increasing inequality the US economy has become more and more dominated by large entrenched companies, with less and less room for new companies to succeed. And no one can argue that the inequality has improved opportunities for people to succeed—on the contrary US society has become less upwardly mobile by every measure.
As for the effect on peoples’ finances—for that there is no ambiguity. Some of the most telling statistics came in a recent paper examining per-adult income growth for the bottom 50% of the US population. It turns out that since 1980 there has been no per-adult income growth for the bottom 50%! That is compared with a 64% increase for the upper 50%, and vastly more for the top 1% (see the chart at the beginning). Note this was a period when women entered the workforce in large numbers. Since we’re dealing with per-adult statistics, we’re saying that for the bottom half of the population the net effect of women working was just to keep things from getting worse! As another example of the same thing—essentially all the benefits of the 2008 – 2015 recovery went to the top 1%.
So what is going on with inequality and what should we think about it? In broad terms there is no secret. We can start with the usual three inter-linked suspects: automation, globalization, and de-unionization. All of those decrease the power of lower-skilled workers in dealing with management, so growing inequality is no surprise—and the effects are continuing. While those effects have been felt everywhere, the response of government to that situation has been different in different countries. In most countries government has attempted to cushion the blow. That has not been wildly successful, but intervention has at least damped the situation.
In the US the exact opposite has happened. Perhaps because of the horrendously expensive electoral process here (assisted by Citizens United), we have seen a precipitous rise in the political power of the increasingly rich top. And political dialogue has naturally evolved to reflect their interests. Even previously sacrosanct services such as education have suffered loss of public financing; the student debt crisis is an obvious sign. If you make a list of the public services that the ultra-rich don’t need, e.g.
– Social welfare
– Broad-based infrastructure,
it is obvious that all of it has become controversial. That is contrasted with an area such as defense, where we’re looking for a buildup.
While Trump’s tax plan has been sold as a job creator, that’s not where it came from. No one is hiding that fact that it is the Republican donors’ tax plan, and its benefits to anyone else are ancillary—and to say the least unproven. Trump himself came on-board late in the game and conveniently seems to believe that whatever is good for him personally is best for everyone else. The tax plan shows inequality as a self-reinforcing trend: more money => more power => even more money.
The bottom line is that inequality in the US is in the process of making this a very different country. For the poor it means simply less support, though the US has never been very good at that. The big difference is for the middle class. Services that they have traditionally relied upon are becoming problematical, and the tax system is increasingly skewed to benefit the rich. Furthermore the ongoing effects of automation, globalization, and de-unionization have made the threat of falling out of the middle class very real. It should be emphasized that automation in particular is accelerating as an issue, with artificial intelligence pushing the threat up the income scale. A recent report predicts almost one-third of existing US jobs could be lost to automation by 2030.
And there’s another problem as well. Adam Smith himself pointed out that the private sector cannot be trusted to provide the proper environment for its own success. He saw both policing the private sector (e.g. anti-trust, free entry) and education (to sustain the private sector) as tasks for government. So growing inequality—with the ultra-rich running the government for their own sake—is not only a threat to the well-being of the population, it is a threat to the vitality of the economy itself.
While solutions are outside the scope of this note, we must recognize that rising inequality puts us on track to become a second-class power with few rich and many poor. That, as noted last time, is our future as banana republic.