By John Mauldin | Feb 23, 2014
The World’s First Trillionaire
Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington DC, Argentina, South Africa, San Diego, Brussels, and Geneva
“Inequality has emerged as a major issue in the US and beyond. A generation ago it could reasonably have been asserted that the overall growth rate of the economy was the main influence on the growth in middle-class incomes and progress in reducing poverty. This is no longer a plausible claim.
“The share of income going to the top 1 per cent of earners has increased sharply. A rising share of output is going to profits. Real wages are stagnant. Family incomes have not risen as fast as productivity. The cumulative effect of all these developments is that the US may well be on the way to becoming a Downton Abbey economy. It is very likely that these issues will be with us long after the cyclical conditions have normalized and budget deficits have at last been addressed.”
– Lawrence Summers (in the Financial Times)
“Cyberpunk is a postmodern science fiction genre noted for its focus on ‘high tech and low life.’ It features advanced science, such as information technology and cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order. ‘Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.’”
– Lawrence Person (Wikipedia)
A new word is achieving ubiquity. The word has always been with us and at times has been a beacon to attract the friends of liberty and opportunity. But now I’m afraid it is beginning to be used as a justification for social and economic policies that will limit the expansion of both liberty and opportunity. The word? Inequality. More specifically, the word has become problematic when used in close proximity to the word income. There are those who believe that income inequality is the proximate cause of the Great Recession, if not the imminent demise of Western Civilization, pushing us into a dystopian world that will come to resemble the one depicted in the movie Blade Runner.
(Note: Blade Runner exemplifies a genre of science fiction called cyberpunk, defined above.)
This week we begin what will probably be a multi-week series on the subject of income inequality. Over the years, I’ve written many times about the lack of income growth for the middle class in the developed world. We have also looked at the growing spread between the top 1% or 5% or 10% and those further down the income scale. The widening spread is an undeniable fact. But what should be done about it? Do we take money from the more well-off, or do we increase opportunities for all? How do we increase opportunity without social expenditures for education and healthcare, and where will the money come from? What trade-offs do we get for the lost productivity and reduced savings that result from increased taxes? What institutional and policy barriers are there? These are all fundamentally important questions.
What spurred me to start this series was a recent paper from two economists (one from the St. Louis Federal Reserve) who are utterly remarkable in their ability to combine more bad economic ideas and research techniques into one paper than anyone in recent memory. Their even more remarkable conclusion is that income inequality was the cause of the Great Recession and subsequent lackluster growth. “Redistributive tax policy” is suggested approvingly. If direct redistribution is not politically possible, then other methods should be tried, the authors say.
So what is this notorious document? It’s “Inequality, the Great Recession, and Slow Recovery,” by Barry Z. Cynamon and Steven M. Fazzari. One could ask whether this is not just another bad economic paper among many. If so, why should we waste our time on it? And this week we’re actually not going to lay the paper out on the slab and dissect it; we’re just going to prepare for the post-mortem by getting up to speed on the issues it tries to address.
The problem is that the subject of income inequality has now permeated the national dialogue not just in the United States but throughout the entire developed world. It will shape the coming political contests in the United States. How we describe income inequality and determine its proximate causes will define the boundaries of future economic and social policy. In discussing the multiple problems with the paper, we have the opportunity to think about how we should actually address income inequality. And hopefully we’ll steer away from simplistic answers that conveniently mesh with our political biases.
I am pretty certain that by the end of the series I will have been able to offend nearly every reader, and some of you multiply. That’s OK – it means we’re thinking outside our boxes. I will admit to having been forced, of late, to change some of my more reflexively conservative positions with regard to the structural causes of income distribution trends and, even more importantly, the distribution of opportunity. It is the latter concept that should command our particular attention, and a fair distribution of opportunity should appeal to both libertarians (I more or less think of myself as one) and progressives.
The unfair distribution of opportunity is not an injustice that can be redressed simply by composing erudite paeans to free markets or social justice, even though politicians will try. The problem is far more complex than that. Are we in fact, as Larry Summers suggests, on the road to a Downton Abbey economy – or, even worse, a Blade Runner-like dystopia?
I should note that Professor Summers’ op-ed is a not entirely uneven discussion of the problem. “Given the widespread frustration with stagnant incomes, and an increasing body of evidence suggesting that the worst-off have few opportunities to improve their lot, demands for action are hardly unreasonable. The challenge is knowing what to do.” We will address Summers’ conclusions later in this series, but for now let’s think about how to approach the challenge of income inequality.
A quick search for the word inequality in Google Trends reveals that the general public is starting to take a lot more interest in the concept. Monthly searches for the wordinequality have more than doubled in the past year or so. (Odd trivia fact: Indiana is the state with the highest search interest in inequality, ahead of college liberal Massachusetts.)
Of the underlying or related searches, income inequality is the most frequently searched term. It spiked to all-time highs after President Obama’s State of the Union address in January.
We have to take this data with a grain of salt, but it clearly shows that inequality is becoming a more popular search term. And if it is becoming a more popular search, that is clearly because people are thinking and talking about it a lot more. And if people are thinking and talking about the subject of income inequality a lot more, then my readers, who are by and large thought leaders in their respective worlds, have a serious responsbility to inform that discussion.
The fact that incomes of various segments of our society are diverging is not really