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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"New Income Inequality Data: Surprising and Frightening"

Bruce Judson is worried about what the latest reports on economic inequality say about our future:

New Income Inequality Data: Surprising and Frightening, by Bruce Judson: The newest economic inequality numbers ... are frightening. Yesterday, the Associated Press released an article titled, US income gap widens as poor take hit in recession. The opening paragraph of the article, based on recent census data, reads:
The recession has hit middle-income and poor families hardest, widening the economic gap between the richest and poorest Americans as rippling job layoffs ravaged household budgets.
The article ... failed to mention that the Census Bureau considered the differences between 2007 and 2008, with regard to economic inequality, statistically insignificant. But, whether the Census Data shows a meaningful increase, or not is irrelevant. The Census Data reports that, contrary to the almost universal expectations of economists, economic inequality most likely did not decrease in 2008. Experts had anticipated that the declines in income of the rich would lead to a reversal in this groups ever–widening share of our national income. Instead, the Census reported that the 2008 income losses by the top 10% of Americans were offset by larger losses among middle class and poorer Americans. ...
Early next week, my new book It Could Happen Here will be released... The book is an in-depth look , based on a historical analysis, of the implications of our historically high levels of economic inequality for the nation’s ultimate, long-term political stability. As economic inequality grows, nations invariably become increasingly politically unstable: Should we complacently believe that America will be different?
A central conclusion of the book is that once economic inequality reaches a self-reinforcing cycle it is halted only by inevitably controversial, hard-fought, bitterly opposed government action. ... In 1928, economic inequality was near today’s levels. Franklin Roosevelt succeeded in reversing the trend toward the continuing concentration of wealth, but it was a turbulent battle. ...
In FDR’s era and in our own, money brings power: both explicitly and implicitly, in hundreds of different ways, both large and small. Today, the wealthiest Americans, together with a number of financial and corporate interests that act on their behalf, protect their ever-increasing influence through activities that include, among others, lobbying, supplying expertise to the councils of government, casual conversation at dinner parties, the potential for jobs after government service, the power to run media advertisements that influence public opinion. Indeed, MIT economist Simon Johnston, writing in The Atlantic asserted that the U.S. is now run by an oligarchy...
The new inequality data suggests that the potential problems for the nation associated with the concentration of wealth and power are even more severe than previously recognized. Two weeks ago, I wrote that “Once income concentration becomes a reinforcing cycle of the kind we are witnessing, it is never stopped by pure market forces.” This mechanism is now in full swing. ...
The great strength of American democracy has always been its capacity for self-correction. However, Robert Dahl, the eminent political scientist, recognized that political power fueled by wealth may ultimately neutralize this central aspect of our democracy. In his 2006 book, On Political Equality, Dahl wrote:
As numerous studies have shown, inequalities in income and wealth are likely to produce other inequalities..
The unequal accumulation of political resources points to an ominous possibility: political inequalities may be ratcheted up, so to speak, to a level from which they cannot be ratcheted down. The cumulative advantages in power, influence, and authority of the more privileged strata may become so great that even if less privileged Americans compose a majority of citizens they are simply unable, and perhaps even unwilling, to make the effort it would require to overcome the forces of inequality arrayed against them.
In the chapter following this quote, Dahl notes “that we should not assume this future is inevitable.” He’s right. But he was clearly concerned. ...
Many current Executive Branch initiatives deserve our support and praise: However, nothing proposed to date will effectively halt growing economic inequality, and its corrosive impact on our economy and the long-term future of the nation. ...
My analysis in It Could Happen Here concludes that without a vibrant middle class, the the American democracy as we know it, is not sustainable. Before the Great Recession, the middle class was in far worse shape than was generally acknowledged. In an economy with a record number of job seekers for every available job, the potential for nearly one-half of all home mortgages to be underwater, and increasing foreclosures, the collapse of the middle class will accelerate. With each job loss and each foreclosure, another family becomes a member of the former middle class.
America has never been a society sharply divided between have’s and have not’s. Unfortunately, this new data says to me we continue to head in that direction. Economists assumed that the Great Recession would be a circuit breaker that would halt this advance, at least temporarily. It did not. ...
Could our democracy survive a transformation into a nation composed principally of a privileged upper class and an underclass that struggles from paycheck to paycheck that lacks basic economic security. My analysis of a broad sweep of history, suggests it could not.
We will only stop the growth of economic inequality if the President and the Congress are ready to fight in the style of Franklin Roosevelt. FDR was a divider not a conciliator. Before World War II, he fought an all-out war at home. Today, “There’s class warfare, all right,” as Warren Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
I fervently hoped that we have not passed the point of no return, described by Professor Dahl. The recent news shows we are one step further on this road. If we continue down it, our nation may be on the path to becoming a House divided against itself, which ultimately cannot stand.

Are you as concerned as he is? I don't know if we are headed down the path of no return or not, but the part that concerns me is that recent changes in inequality do not seem to be driven by market forces that properly evaluate and reward productive activity.

Republicans worry a lot about the effect that small changes in tax rates would have on economic activity (something there's not a lot of evidence to support) because taxes distort the relationship between effort and reward. But if the rewards have become generally separated from productive effort, particularly the large rewards at the very top of the income distribution where the Republicans argue these incentive effects are the strongest, then there are large distortions in the system that have nothing to do with taxes. That is what Republicans ought to be worried about if they are truly concerned with ensuring that the rewards people receive match their productive effort.

    Posted by on Tuesday, September 29, 2009 at 06:52 PM in Economics, Income Distribution | Permalink  Comments (38)

          


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