The Price of Inequality (part 2)

December 12, 2012

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The previous post summarized Joseph Stiglitz’s discussion of the market inefficiencies that allow more inequality than is necessary to reward productive activity. In any free market, some will be more successful than others; the problem is that the winners can win in ways that erect barriers to the success of others, or impose costs on the rest of society, or take advantage of privileged access to information. The excessive inequality that results then undermines social mobility, aggregate demand, investment in public goods, and economic growth in general. Contrary to the view that less government is always better economics, Stiglitz sees an essential role for government in keeping markets fair and efficient, countering tendencies toward excessive inequality, and encouraging economic growth for the benefit of all.

In general, the policies that Stiglitz recommends flow naturally from his understanding of market inefficiencies and limitations. Where markets allow companies to capture private benefits while evading responsibility for social costs (such as environmental damage), government can restore the balance with taxes and regulation, and make sure that producers pay a fair price for access to public resources (such as oil on federal lands). Where markets tend to give unearned benefits to those with inside information (such as bankers who know that some of the securities they market have been designed to fail), government can insist on regulated exchanges with greater transparency. Where markets underinvest in public goods, government can specialize in the creation of public goods. Where markets leave a large segment of society too poor to afford the products that they offer, government can use progressive taxation and spending to stimulate aggregate demand. Where markets erect barriers to upward mobility, government can provide better access to education and health care, as well as “active labor market policies” to help workers transition to occupations in which their labor is needed. It can also impose estate taxes to keep the children of the rich from enjoying large unearned advantages over other children.

All of these things are easier said than done, for the simple reason that the same inequalities that distort the economy also distort the political process, undermining government’s ability to address the inequalities. Stiglitz calls this an “adverse dynamic” or “vicious circle,” a self-amplifying feedback loop perpetuating and strengthening social inequality.

As the wealthy get wealthier, they have more to lose from attempts to restrict rent seeking and redistribute income in order to create a fairer economy, and they have more resources with which to resist such attempts. It might seem
strange that as inequality has increased we have been doing less to diminish its impact, but it’s what one might have expected. It’s certainly what one sees around the world: the more egalitarian societies work harder to preserve their social cohesion; in the more unequal societies, government policies and other institutions tend to foster the persistence of inequality. This pattern has been well documented.

Economic elites use a variety of tactics to tilt the political playing field in their favor. They employ lobbyists to make their case, and gain access to politicians with large campaign contributions (minimally regulated thanks to recent Supreme Court decisions). They “use their political influence to get people appointed to the regulatory agencies who are sympathetic to their perspectives,” so-called “regulatory capture.” In the global economy, capital can flow toward countries with the most permissive tax and regulatory policies, and international bankers have enormous power over countries that rely on foreign capital. “If the country doesn’t do what the financial markets like, they threaten to downgrade the ratings, to pull out their money, to raise interest rates; the threats are usually effective.”

In a nominally democratic country like the United States, ordinary people can theoretically outvote the wealthy. Much of Stiglitz’s political discussion concerns the question of why they don’t do so more often, that is, why people frequently vote against their own economic self-interest. Here he draws heavily on behavioral economics, which tries to understand “how people actually behave–rather than how they would behave if, for instance, they had access to perfect information and made efficient use of it in their attempts to reach their goals, which they themselves understood well.” Economic elites benefit from the fact that “many, if not most, Americans possess a limited understanding of the nature of the inequality in our society: They believe that there is less inequality than there is, they underestimate its adverse economic effects, they underestimate the ability of government to do anything about it, and they overestimate the costs of taking action.” In addition, the wealthy use their economic power to market their ideas, cleverly framing policies that benefit the few to make them appear beneficial to all. Weapons programs that profit defense contractors are always described as good for the economy, while the same amount to protect the environment is just “wasteful government spending.”

The media play a crucial role here, either performing a public mission of informing the citizenry, or just presenting whatever programing brings in the most advertising revenue, including political advertising revenue. In the US, not surprisingly, the media underperform their public mission, leaving citizens at the mercy of the advertisers with the deepest pockets. Stiglitz sees this as another example of rent-seeking: The media get an unearned private benefit from free access to a public resource, then use it in a way that produces private profit at the expense of democratic discourse. “The public owns the airwaves that the TV stations use. Rather than giving these away to the TV stations without restriction–a blatant form of corporate welfare–we should sell access to them; and we could sell it with the condition that a certain amount of airtime be made available for campaign advertising.” If the public is too often misinformed, manipulated, and alienated from a political process that doesn’t represent them very well, that works to the advantage of the economically powerful: “If voters have to be induced to vote because they are disillusioned, it becomes expensive to turn out the vote; the more disillusioned they are, the more it costs. But the more money that is required, the more power that the moneyed interests wield.”

The result of this distorted democracy is that legislation to serve the public interest is extremely difficult to pass. The government is prohibited from bargaining with pharmaceutical companies over the price of prescription drugs, costing the taxpayers an estimated $50 billion a year. Banks have succeeded in blocking most regulations intended to protect student borrowers from fraudulent educational programs, as well as most state laws intended to curb predatory lending. Patent law protects the interests of large corporations and their lawyers, but allows them to “trespass on the intellectual property rights of smaller ones almost with impunity.” Corporate executives who perpetrate fraud are rarely penalized personally for doing so. The recent housing crisis revealed that the foreclosure laws make it easy for banks to foreclose without actually proving that homeowners owe the amounts claimed. And on and on.

The biggest battle over public perceptions is fought over the role of government in the economy, over the Reagan question of whether government is the solution to economic difficulties or government is the problem. Since the Reagan years, conservatives have had great success convincing politicians, the media, and much of the general public that conservative fiscal and monetary policies are good for the economy, even if they favor the wealthy and aggravate inequality. In fiscal policy, the conservative approach is to tax and spend less; this is supposed to help the economy by freeing up capital for private investment. (Conservatives often support increases in military spending, however, which in combination with tax cuts produce large deficits.) Stiglitz acknowledges that constraints on taxes and spending might make sense under some conditions: “Of course, when the economy is at full employment, more government spending won’t increase GDP. It has to crowd out other spending….But these experiences are irrelevant…when unemployment is high (and it’s likely to be high for years to come) and when the Fed has committed itself to not increasing interest rates in response.” Under these conditions, government can borrow cheaply and spend with great economic effect, increasing the size of the pie for all.

The government could borrow today to invest in its future— for example, ensuring quality education for poor and middle-class Americans and developing technologies that increase the demand for America’s skilled labor force, and
simultaneously protect the environment. These high-return investments would improve the country’s balance sheet (which looks simultaneously at assets and liabilities) and yield a return more than adequate to repay the very low interest at which the country can borrow. All good businesses borrow to finance expansion. And if they have high-return investments, and face low costs of capital— as the United States does today— they borrow liberally.

Stiglitz maintains that government spending can help the economy even if it is balanced by higher taxes to avoid increasing the deficit:

There is another strategy that can stimulate the economy, even if there is an insistence that the deficit now not increase; it is based on a long-standing principle called the balanced-budget multiplier. If the government simultaneously increases taxes and increases expenditure— so that the current deficit remains unchanged— the economy is stimulated. Of course, the taxes by themselves dampen the economy, but the expenditures stimulate it. The analysis shows unambiguously that the stimulative effect is considerably greater than the contractionary effect. If the tax and expenditure increases are chosen carefully, the increase in GDP can be two to three times the increase in spending.

That means that by insisting on low taxes for the wealthy and low spending on public goods, the economically powerful and their political allies are putting private gain before the public good. They are not only promoting social inequality, but they are impeding rather than facilitating economic growth.

Stiglitz is also a long-time critic of conventional monetary policy, as practiced by the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He believes that the so-called “independent” central banks have been captured by the financial sector, so that they serve private rather than public interests. Their main focus has been on fighting inflation, a policy that has the greatest benefit for wealthy lenders (since they have the most to lose if loans are repaid in devalued currency). Central banks tend to raise interest rates too quickly during an economic expansion, cooling the economy and maintaining unemployment at an unnecessarily high level. On the other hand, in the Great Recession governments have relied on expansionary monetary policy, pumping more capital into the system by lending banks money at near-zero rates. This is less effective than an expansionary fiscal policy, since the problem is not so much a lack of capital as a lack of spending. But it’s a sweet deal for banks, who get money so cheaply that they can make a good profit even from very low-risk investments like treasury bonds, and are not required to invest it in productive enterprises or housing loans. Cheap capital also encourages companies to finance labor-saving equipment instead of employing more workers, contributing to a jobless recovery.

Stiglitz describes a system so tilted in favor of the rich as to leave the reader pessimistic about finding any way out of the vicious circle of economic and political inequality. In the end, he suggests two general routes to reform. One is that “the 99 percent could come to realize that they have been duped by the 1 percent: that what is in the interest of the 1 percent is not in their interests.” The other is that the 1% themselves come to see beyond their own narrow and short-term self-interest. Although the wealthy have become more and more insulated from the problems experienced by ordinary people, that insulation is not absolute. If the United States were to become as unequal as a Latin American oligarchy, there would be plenty of costs to go around as a result of underutilized human talent and social unrest. Even Brazil, one of the world’s most unequal societies, has been taking steps to alleviate inequality recently. No doubt Stiglitz hopes that books like his can sound the alarm and help change opinions at all levels of American society.