How not to repeat the mistakes of 2011.
In a couple of days I’m going to be participating in an Economic Policy Institute conference on “excessive wealth disorder” — the problems and dangers created by extreme concentration of income and wealth at the top. I’ve been asked to give a short talk at the beginning of the conference, focusing on the political and policy distortions high inequality creates, and I’ve been trying to put my thoughts in order. So I thought I might as well write up those thoughts for broader dissemination.
While popular discourse has concentrated on the “1 percent,” what’s really at issue here is the role of the 0.1 percent, or maybe the 0.01 percent — the truly wealthy, not the “$400,000 a year working Wall Street stiff” memorably ridiculed in the movie Wall Street. This is a really tiny group of people, but one that exerts huge influence over policy.
Where does this influence come from? People often talk about campaign contributions, but those are only one channel. In fact, I’d identify at least four ways in which the financial resources of the 0.1 percent distort policy priorities:
1. Raw corruption. We like to imagine that simple bribery of politicians isn’t an important factor in America, but it’s almost surely a much bigger deal than we like to think.
2. Soft corruption. What I mean by this are the various ways short of direct bribery politicians, government officials, and people with policy influence of any kind stand to gain financially by promoting policies that serve the interests or prejudices of the wealthy. This includes the revolving door between public service and private-sector employment, think-tank fellowships, fees on the lecture circuit, and so on.
3. Campaign contributions. Yes, these matter.
4. Defining the agenda: Through a variety of channels — media ownership, think tanks, and the simple tendency to assume that being rich also means being wise — the 0.1 percent has an extraordinary ability to set the agenda for policy discussion, in ways that can be sharply at odds with both a reasonable assessment of priorities and public opinion more generally.
Of these, I want to focus on item (4), not because it’s necessarily the most important — as I said, I suspect that raw corruption is a bigger deal than most of us can imagine — but because it’s something I think I know about. In particular, I want to focus on a particular example that for me and others was a kind of radicalizing moment, a demonstration that extreme wealth really has degraded the ability of our political system to deal with real problems.
The example I have in mind was the extraordinary shift in conventional wisdom and policy priorities that took place in 2010-2011, away from placing priority on reducing the huge suffering still taking place in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and toward action to avert the supposed risk of a debt crisis. This episode is receding into the past, but it was extraordinary and shocking at the time, and could all too easily be a precursor to politics in the near future.
Let’s talk first about the underlying economic circumstances. At the beginning of 2011, the U.S. unemployment rate was still 9 percent, and long-term unemployment in particular was at extraordinary levels, with more than 6 million Americans having been out of work for 6 months or more. It was an ugly economic situation, but its causes were no mystery. The bursting of the housing bubble, and the subsequent attempts of households to reduce their debt, had let to a severe shortfall of aggregate demand. Despite very low interest rates by historical standards, businesses weren’t willing to invest enough to take up the slack created by this household pullback.
Textbook economics offered very clear advice about what to do under these circumstances. This was exactly the kind of situation in which deficit spending helps the economy, by supplying the demand the private sector wasn’t. Unfortunately, the support provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the Obama stimulus, which was inadequate but had at least cushioned the effects of the slump — peaked in mid-2010 and was in the process of falling off sharply. So the obvious, Economics 101 move would have been to implement another significant round of stimulus. After all, the federal government was still able to borrow long-term at near-zero real interest rates.
Somehow, however, over the course of 2010 a consensus emerged in the political and media worlds that in the face of 9 percent unemployment the two most important issues were … deficit reduction and “entitlement reform,” i.e. cuts in Social Security and Medicare. And I do mean consensus. As Ezra Klein noted, “the rules of reportorial neutrality don’t apply when it comes to the deficit.” He cited, for example, Mike Allen asking Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles “whether they believed Obama would do ‘the right thing’ on entitlements — with ‘the right thing’ clearly meaning ‘cut entitlements.’”
So where did this consensus come from? To be fair, the general public has never bought into Keynesian economics; as far as I know, most voters, if asked, will always say that the budget deficit should be reduced. In November 1936, just after FDR’s reelection, Gallup asked voters whether the new administration should balance the budget; 65 percent said yes, only 28 percent no.
But voters tend to place a relatively low priority on deficits as compared with jobs and the economy. And they overwhelmingly favor spending more on health care and Social Security.
The rich, however, are different from you and me. In 2011 the political scientists Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright managed to survey a group of wealthy individuals in the Chicago area. They found striking differences between this group’s policy priorities and those of the public at large. Budget deficits topped the list of problems they considered “very important,” with a third considering them the “most important” problem. While the respondents also expressed concern about unemployment and education, “they ranked a distant second and third among the concerns of wealthy Americans.”
And when it came to entitlements, the policy preferences of the wealthy were clearly at odds with those of the general public. By large margins, voters at large wanted to expand spending on health care and Social Security. By almost equally large margins, the wealthy wanted to reduce spending on those same programs.
So what was the origin of the conventional-wisdom consensus that emerged in 2010-2011 — a consensus so overwhelming that leading journalists abandoned the conventions of reportorial neutrality, and described austerity policies as the self-evident “right thing” for politicians to be doing? What happened, essentially, was that the political and media establishment internalized the preferences of the extremely wealthy.
Now, 2011 was an especially dramatic example of how this happens, but it wasn’t unique. In their recent book “Billionaires and Stealth Politics,” Page, Seawright, and Matthew Lacombe point out the enduring effects of plutocratic political influence on the Social Security debate: “Despite the strong support among most Americans for protecting and expanding Social Security benefits, for example, the intense, decades-long campaign to cut or privatize Social Security that was led by billionaire Pete Peterson and his wealthy allies appears to have played a part in thwarting any possibility of expanding Social Security benefits. Instead, the United States has repeatedly come close (even under Democratic Presidents Clinton and Obama) to actually cutting benefits as part of a bipartisan ‘grand bargain’ concerning the federal budget.”
And here’s the thing: While we don’t want to romanticize the wisdom of the common man, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that the policy preferences of the wealthy are based on any superior understanding of how the world works. On the contrary, the wealthy were obsessed with debt and uninterested in mass unemployment at a time when deficits weren’t a problem — were, indeed, part of the solution — while unemployment was.
And the widespread belief among the wealthy that we should raise the retirement age is based, literally, on failure to understand how the other half lives (or, actually, doesn’t). Yes, life expectancy at age 65 has gone up, but overwhelmingly for the upper part of the income distribution. Less affluent Americans, who are precisely the people who depend most on Social Security, have seen little rise in life expectancy, so there is no justification for forcing them to work longer.
Where do the preferences of the wealthy come from? You don’t have to be a vulgar Marxist to recognize a strong element of class interest. The push for austerity was clearly linked to a desire to shrink the tax-and-transfer state, which in all advanced countries, even America, is a significant force for redistribution away from the wealthy toward citizens with lower incomes.
You can see the true goals of austerity a couple of ways. First, by comparison with other advanced countries the U.S. has low taxes and low social spending, yet almost all the energy of self-proclaimed deficit hawks was expended on demands for reduced spending rather than increased taxes. Second, it’s striking how much less deficit hysteria we’re hearing now than we did seven years ago. The full-employment budget deficit now is about as large, as a share of GDP, as it was in early 2012, when unemployment was still above 8 percent. But this deficit, although far less justified by macroeconomic considerations, was created by tax cuts — and somehow the deficit hawks are fairly quiet.
No doubt many wealthy backers of tax cuts for themselves and benefit cuts for others manage to convince themselves that this is in everyone’s interest. People are in general good at that sort of self-delusion. The fact remains that the wealthy, on average, push for policies that benefit themselves even when they often hurt the economy as a whole. And the sheer wealth of the wealthy is what empowers them to get a lot of what they want.
So what does this imply going forward? First, in the near term, both during the 2020 election and after, it’s going to be really important to ride herd on both centrist politicians and the media, and not let them pull another 2011, treating the policy preferences of the 0.1 percent as the Right Thing as opposed to, well, what a certain small class of people want. There’s a fairly long list of things progressives have recently advocated that the usual suspects will try to convince everyone are crazy ideas nobody serious would support, e.g.
A 70 percent top tax rate
A wealth tax on very large fortunes
Universal child care
Deficit-financed spending on infrastructure
You don’t have to support any or all of these policy ideas to recognize that they are anything but crazy. They are, in fact, backed by research from some of the world’s leading economic experts. Any journalist or centrist politician who treats them as self-evidently irresponsible is doing a 2011, internalizing the prejudices of the wealthy and treating them as if they were facts.
But while vigilance can mitigate the extent to which the wealthy get to define the policy agenda, in the end big money will find a way — unless there’s less big money to begin with. So reducing the extreme concentration of income and wealth isn’t just a desirable thing on social and economic grounds. It’s also a necessary step toward a healthier political system.
.. more families than ever have zero or negative wealth, excluding their homes.
.. household net worth since 2007 has decreased for all income groups — except the top 10 percent.
.. Net worth for the richest Americans is up an average of 27 percent. For the middle class, what remains of it, wealth has decreased 20 percent to 30 percent in real terms
.. “We believe many families in the youngest cohort we studied here — respondents born in the 1980s — are at substantial risk of accumulating less wealth over their life spans than the members of previous generations,”
.. That’s an astonishing conclusion in an economy that, as President Trump insists, has never been better. Certainly, it’s never been better for the wealthiest 10 percent of families, who now own about 75 percent of the nation’s total household wealth, as opposed to less than 35 percent in the 1970s.
.. Or for the nation’s richest 0.1 percent, who now own as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent
.. the ability to build wealth rests on the ability to save, which they can’t do if interest rates are rising and eating into their earnings. The personal savings rate, at 2.8 percent, is heading in the wrong direction.
.. The overstimulated American economy will run off the cliff on its own momentum, Mr. Bernanke fears. That will leave the nation with an enormous federal deficit and not much fiscal room to maneuver. Having been essentially made to pay for the tax cuts for the richest Americans, the rest of the nation will be staring down the abyss, too.
we talk a lot about the “post-war capital-labor accord” and the golden age of the 1940s-1970s. In these years, inequality went down, unions flourished, civil rights laws were passed along with LBJ’s Great Society programs like Medicare, etc. Corporations saw themselves as not just profit-seeking nexuses-of-contracts but also as institutions with duties to their stakeholders – employees, local community organizations, etc.
.. Then everything went to hell in the 1970s. Oil shocks, poor economic performance, large increases in foreign competition, an overheated economy created by the meeting of increased social spending and increased military spending, all combined to create massive inflation and other sorts of economic upheaval.
.. union contracts were blamed for causing inflation and big business began to push for
regulatory changes (to fight the hated EPA and OSHA, along with unions) and increased layoffs.
Institutional investors, growing rapidly in size in part *because* of the prosperity of the “golden age” (e.g. the massive pension funds like CALPERS and TIAA-CREF), began to demand discipline from corporations unused to having to listen to anyone
.. Changes in financial regulations and institutions made possible the junk bond market and, in turn, a more active market for corporate control – suddenly, large firms that were used to making acquisitions became targets.
.. by the mid-1980s, the golden age had ended along with the capital-labor accord and something new had begun – perhaps we can call it the “neoliberal era
.. This era’s hallmarks include the dramatic decline in unions, massive increases in the share of wealth going to the top 1% and .1% (cf. Piketty and Saez), massive increases in the share of profits going to finance (cf. Krippner 2005), and an overall change in the way that corporations perceived themselves.
.. No longer institutions with obligations beyond profit-seeking, corporations became (thought of as) legal fictions that served the sole purpose of maximizing shareholder value
.. The old dominant strategy of firms was to “retain and reinvest”, the new mantra was to “downsize and distribute”
.. The old model of the firm was GM – a massive, vertically integrated institution that dominated a market and did everything in-house. The new model was the “Original Equipment Manufacturer” (OEM), a firm like Nike that designs a product and markets it but outsources and off-shores as much of the actual producing, distributing, etc. The firm is now a brand, an identity demarcating a certain set of contracts, whose value is more about intangibles than men and machines.
.. Okun’s Law is an economic relationship between the magnitude of an economic downturn (in terms of real GDP) and increases in unemployment
.. if GDP (production and incomes, that is) rises or falls two percent due to the business cycle, the unemployment rate will rise or fall by one percent. The magnitude of swings in unemployment will always be half or nearly half the magnitude of swings in GDP.
.. The last downturns – 1991ish, 2001ish and the current moment – have all been characterized by “jobless recoveries” or, more broadly, much larger decreases and much smaller increases in unemployment than would be predicted by Okun’s law.
.. “businesses will tend to “hoard labor” in recessions, keeping useful workers around and on the payroll even when there is temporarily nothing for them to do”.
.. Manufacturing firms used to think that their most important asset was skilled workers. Hence they hung onto them, “hoarding labor” in recessions. And they especially did not want to let go of their prime productive asset when the recovery began. Skilled workers were the franchise. Now, by contrast, it looks as though firms think that their workers are much more disposable—that it’s their brands or their machines or their procedures and organizations that are key assets.
.. The 1980s saw a reordering of the world – a transition from a period governed by one set of rules that privileged the relationship between businesses and their employees to one that privileged (relatively speaking, in ideology anyway) shareholders.
.. What variables should we care about, if GDP seems to be connected less to welfare than it used to be?
.. the neoliberal period is marked by dramatic, mind-boggling increases in executive compensation without, as far as I know, any signs of better performance or increased shareholder value.
The richest 1 percent — households making at least $732,800 — would get an average tax cut of $129,030, the analysis finds. For the typical one-percenter (who earns much more than $732,800), that means 8.5 percent more income after taxes. The richest 0.1 percent, earning at least $3.4 million a year, would get $722,510 back on average, for a 10.2 percent average boost in after-tax income.
By contrast, the middle class (households earning $48,600 to $86,100 a year) would get $660 back, a 1.2 percent income boost. The poorest fifth of Americans, earning $25,000 or less, would only get $60, a 0.5 percent increase.
.. But the next guest on the “This Week” was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who delivered a stinging rebuttal:
Everything he [Mnuchin] said is dead wrong … They are repealing the Estate Tax. The Estate tax only applies to the top two tenths of one percent — millionaires and billionaires, like the Walton family of Wal Mart, like the Koch Brothers, like the Trump family. $269 billion in tax breaks for the top two tenths of one percent over the next ten years. And this is not a tax break for the rich? Well, I don’t know what a tax break for the rich is.