Putting rents at the center of U.S. income inequality: The rise of income inequality in the United States since the late 1970s is a well-documented fact, but the reasons for the rise still aren’t well understood. The possible culprits include skill-biased technological change, globalization, the rise of the robots, and an increasingly popular reason: increased “rents” in the U.S. economy.
Rents, in economics parlance, are extra returns above and beyond what we’d expect in a competitive market. A new paper by Jason Furman, chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Peter Orszag, former director of the Office of Management and Budget and a current Vice Chairman at Citigroup Inc., presents some evidence that not only have rents increased, but they provide a fundamentally important explanation for rising inequality. ...
While the evidence is far from definitive, increased market power could help explain raising rents as well as decreased labor demand. In conjunction with product, frictions in the labor market generate rents. If a firm has monopsonic power, for example, results in firms hiring fewer workers than is optimal for the entire economy. Increased market power and rents are also potential reasons for the decline in the share of income going to labor.
As Furman and Orszag make clear several times in the paper, the story presented here is far from a slam dunk. The evidence for each individual link in the chain isn’t rock solid yet, and digging into the different research areas is vital. Putting more emphasis on rents in the investigation of income inequality prompts a lot of interesting questions.