Part of an interview of Larry Summers at Equitable Growth:
... When I went to graduate school in the 1970s, the prevailing view among economists, captured by Art Okun’s book “Equality Versus Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff,” was that equality and efficiency were both desirable, but they were likely to trade off—that more progressive taxation would achieve more equality but would inevitably in some way distort economic choices and, so, reduce efficiency, for example.
I believe there are still many areas in which one does have to trade off equality versus efficiency. But I also believe there are many areas in which it’s possible to reform policy to promote both economic efficiency and equality. One such area is policy to mitigate secular stagnation by promoting demand at times when there is slack in the use of resources.
Recall that I defined secular stagnation as having at its essence an excess of savings over investment, desired saving over desired investment. There are many reasons for that. Some of them have to do, for example, with reduced investment demand because so much more capital can be purchased with fewer dollars. I think of the fact that my iPad has more computing power than a Cray supercomputer did when Bill Clinton came into office in 1993.
One aspect of that excess in saving over investments is that rising inequality has operated to reduce spending. We are fairly confident that what economists call the “marginal propensity to consume” of those with high incomes is less than the marginal propensity to consume of those with middle incomes.
And so the combination of rising inequality in the distribution of income across income levels and a shift in inequality toward the higher profit share slows economic growth. In normal times, such a change might be offset by easier monetary policy. But in the current environment, where interest rates are very close to the zero lower bound, the capacity for that kind of offset is greatly attenuated.
There’s another aspect of the connection between secular stagnation and inequality that bears emphasis. Experience suggests that in an economy where there are more workers seeking jobs than there are jobs seeking workers, the power is on the employer side, and workers do much less well. A tight economy, where employers are seeking workers, shifts the balance of power toward workers and leads to higher pay and better benefits. That, in turn, leads to more spending being injected into the economy, which supports further economic growth.
And so, as Keynes recognized when he wrote to FDR in the late 1930s urging the importance of wage increases, measures that strengthen workers’ capacity to earn income by increasing spending power can promote both equality and strengthen the economic performance of the country. ...