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.

Capitalism in America: Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge in Conversation with Gillian Tett

it’s useful to understand how the system
works and the key turning point is a
very remarkable period it’s William
Jennings Bryan William Jennings Bryan in
1896 was a fairly young 36 year old
Nebraskan who got up in the middle of
that particular I guess you could say
Association of then the Democratic Party
and it was the one of those
extraordinary events which turns
politics around the Democratic Party was
a highly conservative party prior to
them and essentially it’s characterized
by presidents who thought that the least
government the best it was essentially
lazy fair he got up Bryan got up and
made this extraordinary speech which is
now historical and then cross of gold
speech about the American worker and the
American farmer of being crucified on a
cross of gold called being the gold
standard and that propelled him
strangely enough into the head of the
party he got nominated he never became
president because he kept losing
you think he went three times and failed
each time but left a very major
indelible stamp which led to Woodrow
Wilson and all the way through to
Franklin Roosevelt and I you know I
looked at Bryan as the root of Franklin
Roosevelt’s New Deal
that’s fascinating cause I think most
people that part of it’s often being
obscured in history it’s again one of
the reasons why this book is so
interesting is it throws up these
creating the existing tax pattern [M]y
view is that that’s the right thing to
do provided you funded the result of
that is a bit of variance is going to be
a very large federal budget deficit and
federal budget deficits invariably down
the road out qualification in gender
inflation at the moment we have the
tightest labor market I have ever seen
that is the number of job openings is
significantly greater than the number of
people looking for work and that must
inevitably begin to push on wages it
always has and always will but it’s
always delayed
and my told you that is something has
got to give and that’s I don’t know
where it all comes out well your blyat
comes out with inflation well the
problem basically is if we do nothing
we’re going to end up with probably
stagflation which is an inflation rate I
should say it’s partly stagnation which
as mentioned was very significantly
slowed output per our output per hour
now which used to be 3/4 percent per
year
back in the early post-world war ii
period it’s now well under 1% which
brings me very nicely on to the next
question from the audience which is
someone has asked for you to share your
thoughts about president Trump’s recent
criticism of Jay Powell and the Fed I
like him to answer that with all the
answers I think it’s very short-sighted
the issue of the Federal Reserve is
required by the Congress to maintain a
stable currency which means no inflation
no deflation and the policy they’re
embarked upon at the moment seems very
sense it will be caused as I mentioned
before the wage rates are beginning to
show signs of moving and you cannot have
real wages rising without it ultimately
think if they continue on the road would
that we will
going Pretlow I should say that the
president wants to go we’re gonna end up
with a very significant budget deficit
and very significant inflation
ultimately not not in the short term
that it takes a while
political system doesn’t care about
deficits what they do care about is
inflation when the inflation rate was 4%
in the 1970s
President Nixon imposed wage and price
controls were nowhere near there yet but
it’s wrong our way
if we are though heading towards a
potential rise in inflation rise in debt
at a time of growing populism do you
think there’s a chance that the Federal
Reserve will lose independence I’m
trying to follow you which I mean well
cheating is a chance at Congress or the
president will try to control the
Federal Reserve or take away some of its
independence I really don’t know one of
those forecasting aspects which is
difficult another question from the
audience as the Federal Reserve’s reach
grows do you think that leged of
oversight will become necessary again
that’s above my pay grade
or do you think that Congress should
exert more control or oversight of the
Fed I think the Federal Reserve is by
statute
remember the Federal Reserve Act of 1913
which essentially did something very
unusual we had a long period we
discussed this in the book in which
financial crises kept surging up and
then collapsing which is a typical cycle
with
which went on to a decade upon decade
and the populism that evolved as a
consequence of this looked at
ever-increasing lead to find a way to
solve the problem of why the crises
occur and the general solution was if
the economy is accelerating and it’s
running out of gold species and you’re
going to get into a situation in which
they are always going to be crises so
what the Federal Reserve Act actually
did was very very interesting it
substituted the sovereign credit of the
United States for gold and then if no we
stayed on the gold standard technically
that was a major change in American
financial history and debate the basic
consequence of that is that Federal
Reserve determines what in effect is a
sensible level of money supply expansion
and one of the reasons the Federal
Reserve Act was actually passed was to
prevent the political system when
becoming so very dominant in determining
monetary policy which is exactly what
you don’t want to happen and I mean I
was you know eighteen and a half years
as you mentioned getting letters from
everybody who won very little
congressmen or otherwise who wants it’s
a the issue of and don’t worry about the
issue of inflation
and nobody was well when I would be
getting people who say we want lower
interest rates I got tons of that mail I
never got a single letter saying please
raise them and it tells you that there
are some views which go against reality
and reality always wins but if you look
at that the history of populism some of
the worst populism you got was in the
1970s some of the work that the anger
that was generated by inflation in the
nineteen seventies were roiled right the
way through the political system
eventually leads to the rise of of
Ronald Reagan because and who comes in
and then you know crushes crushes
inflation so inflation is is not a
solution to populism it drivers it makes
people very angry do you think the
current populism is going to get worse
chairman Greenspan well let’s remember
where populism comes from it’s I don’t
know whether this is a general
proposition but I find it’s difficult to
get around the answer that when the
inflation rate or that must the
inflation ratings as much as the levels
of income slow down when you get
productivity for example which is that
the major determinant of income and you
get productivity slowing down you get a
much lower increase in JD GDP and gross
domestic income and wages and salaries
alike and there’s a great deal of unease
in the population which is saying things
are not good somebody come help us and
somebody necessarily on the white horse
because comes up and says I’ve got a way
to handle this and if you look at Latin
America the history of
goodly part of Latin America is a
remarkable amount of people like Peron
coming in and all the subsequent post
World War two governments in Latin
America and it’s really quite
unfortunate and surprising it’s not that
they try it and it fails which it does
always it always fails but it doesn’t
eliminate the desire to do it in other
words of Peru Brazil and like they’ve
all undergone very significant periods
of huge inflation and collapsing and
nobody wears a lesson
yeah well we’re almost out of time but
there’s one other question from the
audience which I think cuts to the heart
of a lot of what we’re talking about
right now which is this does the success
of capitalism come at the cost of
enormous wealth disparity is it possible
to have this vision of creative
destruction of capitalism of dynamism
without having massive income inequality
I doubt it and I doubt it for the reason
I said earlier namely that we’ve got the
problem that human beings don’t change
but technology as it advances and it’s
embodied in the growth of an economy is
always growing and when you have
something that’s growing and the other
thing that’s flat you get obviously
inequality and the political
consequences of that can I qualify that
just a little bit I mean there – there
are different sorts of inequality
there’s a there’s the inequality that
you get from suddenly like Bill Gates or
Steve Jobs producing a fantastic new
innovation and idea which means that
they reap a lot of reward
for that but which means that society as
a whole gets richer and better off and
there’s the inequality that comes from
crony capitalism from people using
political influence blocking innovation
and and sucking out and do rewards for
themselves so I think we need to be
absolutely very very sensitive to the
wrong source of inequality while
celebrating the right sort of inequality
and also had that Joseph Schumpeter that
great man once said that the the nature
of capitalist progress doesn’t consist
of Queens having a million or two
million pairs of silk stockings it
consists of what used to be the
prerogative of a queen being spread
throughout the whole of society silk
stockings you know that become something
that go from being very rare and only
worn by Queens to being worn by all
sorts of people all over the place so
it’s the nature of capitalism is to
create new innovations which are at
first rare but spread throughout the
whole of society and everybody uses so
if you think think of the the iPhone or
something like that some that was
something that was incredibly rare and a
few people had those sort of
communications vais now everybody
carries them around all the time and the
great capitalists the Bill Gates the
Steve Jobs don’t get rich by selling one
really really good iPhone to one purpose
and they get into selling their products
to all sorts of people so there’s a
sense in which there is no real
trade-off between very rich people
getting very rich and the rest of
society getting getting better off you
know they only get rich because they
create things which everybody most
people want to have and buy you know
it’s it’s it’s it’s the Silk Stocking
question really I you know I accept that
qualifications let me just say one thing
you going back to his mentioning here
Walter Isaacson’s book on innovation he
wrote that book and I remember reading
it and my final conclusion was and I
asked him why is it that most innovation
is in the United States
it’s American and he said you know I’ve
never thought of that I don’t think he
was aware of the fact that he here and
all these innovation
to developers and they all turned out to
be American which leads me to conclude
that there’s something fundamental in
the psyche of American history in the
American public which creates it it’s
not an accident which is why I won in it
who too often so which is what you of
course you sought to explain the book so
if you had a chance to take this book
into the Oval Office today or into the
Treasury and give it to the President
and say this is a history of America
here are the key lessons what is a top
bit of advice that you would give to the
administration today to keep capitalism
growing in America well you know we do
have we haven’t mentioned that there’s
an underlying financial problem which we
haven’t addressed in the best way to
discuss it as when I first became aware
of it
I would haven’t been looking at data and
accidentally created a chart which
showed the relationship between
entitlements spending which is social
benefits in the rest of the world and
gross domestic savings and I’m from 1965
to the current period the ratio of
entitlements to the sum of those two is
flat as a percent of gross domestic
product which means or at least implies
that one is crowding out the other and
when you look at the individuals they
are actually looking different and
enable one goes up the other goes down
and so forth and I think that’s
suggestively the fact that there is
something in the sense of when we say
that entitlements by which a rising and
the baby boom generation is essentially
crowding out gross domestic savings
which in turn coupled with
the borrowing from abroad is how we
finance our gross domestic investment
which is the key factor in productivity
right so entitlement reform well I look
forward to a tweet about entitlement
reform I look forward to this very
important book being part of the
discussion about how to keep America
America’s economy great and growing but
in the meantime thank you both very much
indeed for sharing your thoughts it is
indeed a fascinating book and quite an
achievement and best of luck in getting
this very important message out so thank
you both very much indeed
[Applause]