Notes on Excessive Wealth Disorder

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.

The Republican tax cut is a big, fat failure

The Republican tax cut is a big, fat failure.

It has achieved none of the things that Republicans promised it would. It didn’t reduce deficits. It didn’t target the middle class. And it didn’t win goodwill with voters.

Yet, for some reason, President Trump wants to do it all over again . . . in the next nine days, no less.

Last week the Treasury Department reported that the federal budget deficit swelled by 17 percent, or $113 billion, from fiscal 2017 to 2018. This is noteworthy, and not only because Republicans usually claim to despise deficits (at least, they do when Democrats are in charge).

It also reflects a massive decoupling of the business cycle from the federal budget.

Usually, as the economy improves, deficits shrink. That’s because people earn more money, causing them to pay more in taxes and enroll in fewer federal safety-net programs. This relationship between deficits and the economy has generally held true for the past 70 years, except during times of war.

Worry About Debt? Not So Fast, Some Economists Say

U.S. deficits may not matter so much after all—and it might not hurt to expand them for the right reasons

Now, some prominent economists say U.S. deficits don’t matter so much after all, and it might not hurt to expand them in return for beneficial programs such as an infrastructure project.

“The levels of debt we have in the U.S. are not catastrophic,” said Olivier Blanchard, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “We clearly can afford more debt if there is a good reason to do it. There’s no reason to panic.”

Mr. Blanchard, also a former IMF chief economist, delivered a lecture at last month’s meeting of the American Economic Association where he called on economists and policymakers to reconsider their views on debt.

The crux of Mr. Blanchard’s argument is that when the interest rate on government borrowing is below the growth rate of the economy, financing the debt should be sustainable.

.. Interest rates will likely remain low in the coming years as the population ages. An aging population borrows and spends less and limits how much firms invest, holding down borrowing costs. That suggests the government will not be faced with an urgent need to shrink the debt.

Mr. Blanchard stops short of arguing that the government should run up its debt indiscriminately. The need to finance higher government debt loads could soak up capital from investors that might otherwise be invested in promising private ventures.

Mr. Rogoff himself is sympathetic. “The U.S. position is very strong at the moment,” he said. “There’s room.”

.. Some left-wing economists go even further by arguing for a new way of thinking about fiscal policy, known as Modern Monetary Theory.

MMT argues that fiscal policy makers are not constrained by their ability to find investors to buy bonds that finance deficits—because the U.S. government can, if necessary, print its own currency to finance deficits or repay bondholders—but by the economy’s ability to support all the additional spending and jobs without shortages and inflation cropping up.

Rather than looking at whether a new policy will add to the deficit, lawmakers should instead consider whether new spending could lead to higher inflation or create dislocation in the economy, said economist Stephanie Kelton, a Stony Brook University professor and former chief economist for Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee.

If the economy has the ability to absorb that spending without boosting price pressures, there’s no need for policy makers to “offset” that spending elsewhere, she said. If price pressures do crop up, policy makers can raise taxes or the Federal Reserve can raise interest rates.

“All we’re saying, the MMT approach, is just to point out that there’s more space,” she said. “We could be richer as a nation if we weren’t so timid in the use of fiscal policy.”

 .. By continuing to run large deficits, says Marc Goldwein, senior vice president at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, the U.S. is slowing wage growth by crowding out private investment, increasing the amount of the budget dedicated to financing the past and putting the country at a small but increased risk of a future fiscal crisis.

Market interest rate signals can be misleading and dangerous. By blessing the U.S. with such low rates now, he says, financial markets just might be “giving us the rope with which to hang ourselves.”

The one way Donald Trump might be like George H.W. Bush

The effect of Bush’s 1992 loss on the current GOP cannot be overestimated. The object lesson for the GOP was that neither preparation nor accomplishment mattered as a metric for political success. The two salient facts for Republicans were:

(1) Bush compromised with Democrats to reduce the budget deficit, thereby reversing his pledge not to raise taxes and alienating the GOP base; and

(2) Bush lost in 1992.

Newt Gingrich supplanted Bush as the GOP standard-bearer. This paved the way for political success and policy disasters.

Donald Trump can do one useful thing for the modern GOP: He can lose in 2020. Trump’s control over his party has already wobbled a bit after the midterms. And as CNN’s Harry Enten noted last week, Trump is laying the groundwork for that kind of ignominious failure:

The difference between Trump’s net economic approval rating and net overall approval rating is astonishingly high when put in a historical context. I looked up every single president’s overall and economic net approval ratings right around each midterm since 1978.

No other president has done this much worse overall than his economic ratings would suggest. On average, their overall net approval rating has actually run 17 points better than their economic net approval rating. Trump is running 27 points worse. The only president to come close to Trump’s negative differential was Bill Clinton in 1998. That was when Clinton was getting impeached….

Trump’s tweets, attacks on the media and improvisational style may be fodder for his base, but they don’t seem to be working on the electorate at-large. A Monmouth University poll earlier this year found that the vast majority of Americans said Trump ran a less conventional administration than normal, and by a 21-point margin, they said that was a bad thing.

If Trump loses in 2020, then maybe the modern GOP would start tacking back toward the style of George H.W. Bush and his aspirations for a kinder, gentler nation.