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.
it’s useful to understand how the systemworks and the key turning point is avery remarkable period it’s WilliamJennings Bryan William Jennings Bryan in1896 was a fairly young 36 year oldNebraskan who got up in the middle ofthat particular I guess you could sayAssociation of then the Democratic Partyand it was the one of thoseextraordinary events which turnspolitics around the Democratic Party wasa highly conservative party prior tothem and essentially it’s characterizedby presidents who thought that the leastgovernment the best it was essentiallylazy fair he got up Bryan got up andmade this extraordinary speech which isnow historical and then cross of goldspeech about the American worker and theAmerican farmer of being crucified on across of gold called being the goldstandard and that propelled himstrangely enough into the head of theparty he got nominated he never becamepresident because he kept losingyou think he went three times and failedeach time but left a very majorindelible stamp which led to WoodrowWilson and all the way through toFranklin Roosevelt and I you know Ilooked at Bryan as the root of FranklinRoosevelt’s New Dealthat’s fascinating cause I think mostpeople that part of it’s often beingobscured in history it’s again one ofthe reasons why this book is sointeresting is it throws up thesecreating the existing tax pattern [M]yview is that that’s the right thing todo provided you funded the result ofthat is a bit of variance is going to bea very large federal budget deficit andfederal budget deficits invariably downthe road out qualification in genderinflation at the moment we have thetightest labor market I have ever seenthat is the number of job openings issignificantly greater than the number ofpeople looking for work and that mustinevitably begin to push on wages italways has and always will but it’salways delayedand my told you that is something hasgot to give and that’s I don’t knowwhere it all comes out well your blyatcomes out with inflation well theproblem basically is if we do nothingwe’re going to end up with probablystagflation which is an inflation rate Ishould say it’s partly stagnation whichas mentioned was very significantlyslowed output per our output per hournow which used to be 3/4 percent peryearback in the early post-world war iiperiod it’s now well under 1% whichbrings me very nicely on to the nextquestion from the audience which issomeone has asked for you to share yourthoughts about president Trump’s recentcriticism of Jay Powell and the Fed Ilike him to answer that with all theanswers I think it’s very short-sightedthe issue of the Federal Reserve isrequired by the Congress to maintain astable currency which means no inflationno deflation and the policy they’reembarked upon at the moment seems verysense it will be caused as I mentionedbefore the wage rates are beginning toshow signs of moving and you cannot havereal wages rising without it ultimatelythink if they continue on the road wouldthat we willgoing Pretlow I should say that thepresident wants to go we’re gonna end upwith a very significant budget deficitand very significant inflationultimately not not in the short termthat it takes a whilepolitical system doesn’t care aboutdeficits what they do care about isinflation when the inflation rate was 4%in the 1970sPresident Nixon imposed wage and pricecontrols were nowhere near there yet butit’s wrong our wayif we are though heading towards apotential rise in inflation rise in debtat a time of growing populism do youthink there’s a chance that the FederalReserve will lose independence I’mtrying to follow you which I mean wellcheating is a chance at Congress or thepresident will try to control theFederal Reserve or take away some of itsindependence I really don’t know one ofthose forecasting aspects which isdifficult another question from theaudience as the Federal Reserve’s reachgrows do you think that leged ofoversight will become necessary againthat’s above my pay gradeor do you think that Congress shouldexert more control or oversight of theFed I think the Federal Reserve is bystatuteremember the Federal Reserve Act of 1913which essentially did something veryunusual we had a long period wediscussed this in the book in whichfinancial crises kept surging up andthen collapsing which is a typical cyclewithwhich went on to a decade upon decadeand the populism that evolved as aconsequence of this looked atever-increasing lead to find a way tosolve the problem of why the crisesoccur and the general solution was ifthe economy is accelerating and it’srunning out of gold species and you’regoing to get into a situation in whichthey are always going to be crises sowhat the Federal Reserve Act actuallydid was very very interesting itsubstituted the sovereign credit of theUnited States for gold and then if no westayed on the gold standard technicallythat was a major change in Americanfinancial history and debate the basicconsequence of that is that FederalReserve determines what in effect is asensible level of money supply expansionand one of the reasons the FederalReserve Act was actually passed was toprevent the political system whenbecoming so very dominant in determiningmonetary policy which is exactly whatyou don’t want to happen and I mean Iwas you know eighteen and a half yearsas you mentioned getting letters fromeverybody who won very littlecongressmen or otherwise who wants it’sa the issue of and don’t worry about theissue of inflationand nobody was well when I would begetting people who say we want lowerinterest rates I got tons of that mail Inever got a single letter saying pleaseraise them and it tells you that thereare some views which go against realityand reality always wins but if you lookat that the history of populism some ofthe worst populism you got was in the1970s some of the work that the angerthat was generated by inflation in thenineteen seventies were roiled right theway through the political systemeventually leads to the rise of ofRonald Reagan because and who comes inand then you know crushes crushesinflation so inflation is is not asolution to populism it drivers it makespeople very angry do you think thecurrent populism is going to get worsechairman Greenspan well let’s rememberwhere populism comes from it’s I don’tknow whether this is a generalproposition but I find it’s difficult toget around the answer that when theinflation rate or that must theinflation ratings as much as the levelsof income slow down when you getproductivity for example which is thatthe major determinant of income and youget productivity slowing down you get amuch lower increase in JD GDP and grossdomestic income and wages and salariesalike and there’s a great deal of uneasein the population which is saying thingsare not good somebody come help us andsomebody necessarily on the white horsebecause comes up and says I’ve got a wayto handle this and if you look at LatinAmerica the history ofgoodly part of Latin America is aremarkable amount of people like Peroncoming in and all the subsequent postWorld War two governments in LatinAmerica and it’s really quiteunfortunate and surprising it’s not thatthey try it and it fails which it doesalways it always fails but it doesn’teliminate the desire to do it in otherwords of Peru Brazil and like they’veall undergone very significant periodsof huge inflation and collapsing andnobody wears a lessonyeah well we’re almost out of time butthere’s one other question from theaudience which I think cuts to the heartof a lot of what we’re talking aboutright now which is this does the successof capitalism come at the cost ofenormous wealth disparity is it possibleto have this vision of creativedestruction of capitalism of dynamismwithout having massive income inequalityI doubt it and I doubt it for the reasonI said earlier namely that we’ve got theproblem that human beings don’t changebut technology as it advances and it’sembodied in the growth of an economy isalways growing and when you havesomething that’s growing and the otherthing that’s flat you get obviouslyinequality and the politicalconsequences of that can I qualify thatjust a little bit I mean there – thereare different sorts of inequalitythere’s a there’s the inequality thatyou get from suddenly like Bill Gates orSteve Jobs producing a fantastic newinnovation and idea which means thatthey reap a lot of rewardfor that but which means that society asa whole gets richer and better off andthere’s the inequality that comes fromcrony capitalism from people usingpolitical influence blocking innovationand and sucking out and do rewards forthemselves so I think we need to beabsolutely very very sensitive to thewrong source of inequality whilecelebrating the right sort of inequalityand also had that Joseph Schumpeter thatgreat man once said that the the natureof capitalist progress doesn’t consistof Queens having a million or twomillion pairs of silk stockings itconsists of what used to be theprerogative of a queen being spreadthroughout the whole of society silkstockings you know that become somethingthat go from being very rare and onlyworn by Queens to being worn by allsorts of people all over the place soit’s the nature of capitalism is tocreate new innovations which are atfirst rare but spread throughout thewhole of society and everybody uses soif you think think of the the iPhone orsomething like that some that wassomething that was incredibly rare and afew people had those sort ofcommunications vais now everybodycarries them around all the time and thegreat capitalists the Bill Gates theSteve Jobs don’t get rich by selling onereally really good iPhone to one purposeand they get into selling their productsto all sorts of people so there’s asense in which there is no realtrade-off between very rich peoplegetting very rich and the rest ofsociety getting getting better off youknow they only get rich because theycreate things which everybody mostpeople want to have and buy you knowit’s it’s it’s it’s the Silk Stockingquestion really I you know I accept thatqualifications let me just say one thingyou going back to his mentioning hereWalter Isaacson’s book on innovation hewrote that book and I remember readingit and my final conclusion was and Iasked him why is it that most innovationis in the United Statesit’s American and he said you know I’venever thought of that I don’t think hewas aware of the fact that he here andall these innovationto developers and they all turned out tobe American which leads me to concludethat there’s something fundamental inthe psyche of American history in theAmerican public which creates it it’snot an accident which is why I won in itwho too often so which is what you ofcourse you sought to explain the book soif you had a chance to take this bookinto the Oval Office today or into theTreasury and give it to the Presidentand say this is a history of Americahere are the key lessons what is a topbit of advice that you would give to theadministration today to keep capitalismgrowing in America well you know we dohave we haven’t mentioned that there’san underlying financial problem which wehaven’t addressed in the best way todiscuss it as when I first became awareof itI would haven’t been looking at data andaccidentally created a chart whichshowed the relationship betweenentitlements spending which is socialbenefits in the rest of the world andgross domestic savings and I’m from 1965to the current period the ratio ofentitlements to the sum of those two isflat as a percent of gross domesticproduct which means or at least impliesthat one is crowding out the other andwhen you look at the individuals theyare actually looking different andenable one goes up the other goes downand so forth and I think that’ssuggestively the fact that there issomething in the sense of when we saythat entitlements by which a rising andthe baby boom generation is essentiallycrowding out gross domestic savingswhich in turn coupled withthe borrowing from abroad is how wefinance our gross domestic investmentwhich is the key factor in productivityright so entitlement reform well I lookforward to a tweet about entitlementreform I look forward to this veryimportant book being part of thediscussion about how to keep AmericaAmerica’s economy great and growing butin the meantime thank you both very muchindeed for sharing your thoughts it isindeed a fascinating book and quite anachievement and best of luck in gettingthis very important message out so thankyou both very much indeed[Applause]