Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Income inequality: government, Warren Buffett and growth

Chrystia Freeland
Nov 30, 2012 18:57 UTC

When Branko Milanovic, a World Bank economist, published “The Haves and the Have-Nots,” a study of global income inequality last year, one of his most striking observations was the extent to which the subject was taboo in the United States.

As Milanovic explained, “I was once told by the head of a prestigious think tank in Washington, D.C., that the think tank’s board was very unlikely to fund any work that had ‘income’ or ‘wealth inequality’ in its title. Yes, they would finance anything to do with poverty alleviation, but inequality was an altogether different matter.”

“Why?” Milanovic asked. “Because ‘my’ concern with the poverty of some people actually projects me in a very nice, warm glow: I am ready to use my money to help them. Charity is a good thing; a lot of egos are boosted by it, and many ethical points earned even when only tiny amounts are given to the poor. But inequality is different: Every mention of it raises, in fact, the issue of the appropriateness or legitimacy of my income.”

I recalled Milanovic’s remarks this week when I found myself on a panel at the Brookings Institution, one of those Washington research groups, discussing income inequality, including the research collected in a new book published by Brookings titled “Inequality in America.” In reply, Kemal Dervis, the vice president of Brookings, who co-wrote the book and led the panel, joked that if he turns up on the job market next month, we will know he overstepped the mark.

It was a characteristically polished line – Dervis is a former Turkish cabinet minister – but the truth is that the Brookings event was a sign of the recent sea change in the U.S. public discourse about income inequality.

The 1 percent vs. President Obama

Chrystia Freeland
Jul 12, 2012 23:46 UTC

Why have the rich turned against President Barack Obama?

That has been a persistent theme of this campaign: We were reminded of it at the beginning of this week, when Mitt Romney’s team raised more money than the president’s for the second month running, and more colorfully in weekend reports of the Republican candidate’s lavish fund-raisers in the Hamptons.

If you were a Martian, or even a European, the animosity of America’s 1 percent toward the president might be rather mysterious. Although those at the bottom and in the middle are still suffering from the downturn that began in 2008, with unemployment above 8 percent, the affluent economy has bounced back quite smartly. The stock market has recovered, corporate coffers are overflowing with cash, and the luxury goods market is booming.

Even Wall Street, where hostility toward the White House is especially acid, has reason to be grateful. Bankers got the biggest government bailout of all – much more than laid-off workers or beleaguered homeowners received from this Democratic administration – and the president resisted calls from the left to nationalize the banks he rescued, as did the British.

Trickle-down consumption

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 22, 2012 23:29 UTC

We know now that trickle-down economics doesn’t really work – the past decade in the United States has seen incomes at the very top soar, while the earnings of the middle class stagnated or declined. But a growing body of academic research is suggesting that this benign force’s wicked stepsister, a phenomenon two economists have dubbed ‘‘trickle-down consumption,’’ is having a powerful impact on the economy and politics of the United States.

The idea is that income inequality has a significant impact on the 99 percent: It drives the rest of us to consume more, whether we can afford to or not.

Robert H. Frank, an economist at Cornell University, is a pioneering student of this behavior who has been writing about the subject for nearly two decades, long before it became fashionable. Frank, who is the co-author of two economics textbooks with the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, believes that rising income inequality affects the rest of us through what he calls ‘‘expenditure cascades.’’

Americans live in Russia, but think they live in Sweden

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 22, 2011 17:53 UTC

Americans actually live in Russia, although they think they live in Sweden. And they would like to live on a kibbutz. This isn’t the set-up for some sort of politically incorrect Catskills stand-up joke circa 1960. It is the takeaway from a remarkable study by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely on how Americans think about income inequality.

The right likes to argue that income inequality as an issue doesn’t win elections because Americans don’t begrudge the rich so much as they want to join them. The Norton and Ariely study suggests otherwise. Given a choice, the authors find, Americans would prefer to live in a society more equal than even highly egalitarian Sweden.

Another popular view is that income inequality isn’t experienced as acutely by most Americans as the numbers suggest because of how much can be “consumed” by the lower rungs of the nation’s socioeconomic ladder. No less a figure than Alan Greenspan, the maestro himself, once made this case at the Federal Reserve’s annual Jackson Hole conference, presenting data on the consumption of dishwashers, microwaves and clothes dryers showing that if measured by the possession of these goods – as opposed to the huge and growing income divide — inequality was decreasing.

The new global elites

Chrystia Freeland
Jan 4, 2011 21:51 UTC

The January/February issue of The Atlantic features Chrystia’s cover story, “The Rise of the New Global Elite.” The piece discusses the rise in income inequality over the past few decades, how today’s tycoons are more likely to be self-made and cosmopolitan than the plutocrats of the past, and how the new elite have more in common with the nouveau riche in emerging markets than with their own countrymen.

Chrystia was on Morning Joe this morning to preview the article along with James Bennett, The Atlantic‘s editor-in-chief. Here’s the video of their conversation:

And, here is an excerpt from Chrystia’s piece in the Atlantic:

Before the recession, it was relatively easy to ignore this concentration of wealth among an elite few. The wondrous inventions of the modern economy—Google, Amazon, the iPhone—broadly improved the lives of middle-class consumers, even as they made a tiny subset of entrepreneurs hugely wealthy. And the less-wondrous inventions—particularly the explosion of subprime credit—helped mask the rise of income inequality for many of those whose earnings were stagnant.

  •