Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Does inequality help growth- or hurt it?

Chrystia Freeland
May 16, 2013 20:56 UTC

One of the most urgent questions in economics today is the connection between inequality and growth. That is because one of the big economic facts of our time is the surge in income disparity, particularly between those at the very top and everyone else. The other big fact is the recession set off by the financial crisis and the consequent imperative to jump-start economic growth. Figuring out the relationship between these two tent-pole issues is therefore a good way for economists to spend their time.

There are two main and contradictory ideas about how that relationship might work. One is that inequality is the price of robust economic growth. If the private sector is thriving, the most successful capitalists will be getting very rich. Creating a system that allows – indeed, encourages – the best and the brightest to pull away from everyone else is how you shift your economy into its highest gear.

There is, however, another theory, and it has been winning adherents in the aftermath of the financial crisis. In this view, rising inequality is not a symptom of a fast-growing economy or an incentive that will help create one. Instead, too much income inequality crushes economic growth.

There are different arguments for why that might happen. One is that high income inequality creates an unstable system that is vulnerable to costly booms and busts. Another is that when too much of the income goes to the very top and not enough goes to the middle, spending slumps – how many yachts does a plutocrat need? – putting a brake on growth.

David Howell, a professor of economics at The New School in New York, has written a draft paper for the Center for American Progress, a progressive research group, that investigates the first argument. Howell argues that the United States and Britain have acted over the past three decades on what he calls the laissez-faire theory, that the equation of rising inequality and increasing gross domestic product is correct.

The curse of the bull elk antlers

Chrystia Freeland
Sep 8, 2011 21:34 UTC

As the United States prepares to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this weekend, one of the most striking contrasts is between a country that was united in the face of a foreign enemy a decade ago, and that same nation today, which is so bitterly divided as it confronts domestic challenges of equal, if not greater, magnitude.

Most Americans do agree on one thing — the polarization and paralysis are the fault of failed politicians and a flawed political system. As a unifying rallying cry, this pox-on-all-their-houses approach has much to recommend it.

But what if the problem goes deeper than politics and politicos? Maybe America’s national discord is rooted in structural factors that even the most talented leader and effective political system would struggle to fix.

Davos Today with Chrystia Freeland, January 26th edition

Chrystia Freeland
Feb 3, 2011 15:31 UTC

Last week at Davos, Chrystia anchored an hour-long daily talk show that featured many of the World Economic Forum’s most exciting participants.  Last Wednesday’s edition featured a segments on frugal innovation in India with two top Indian businessmen; the state of trust in business and government today with a behavioral economist and two CEOs; an appraisal of President Obama’s State of the Union from two pre-eminent economists; and more.  Here’s the video and the guest list:

* T.K. Kurien, CEO, Wipro IT

* Richard Edelman, President and CEO, Edelman

* Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics, Duke University Fuqua School of Business

* L. Kevin Kelly, CEO, Heidrick & Struggles

* David Schlesinger, Editor-in-Chief, Reuters

* Raghuram Rajan, Eric J. Gleacher Distinguished Service Professor of Finance, University of Chicago Booth School of Business

Why the Wall Street-Washington door revolves

Chrystia Freeland
Jan 14, 2011 15:57 UTC

As President Barack Obama’s new lieutenants settle into their offices in the White House, talk has turned again to the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street: William Daley, the president’s chief of staff, arrives from JPMorgan Chase, where he earned millions; Gene Sperling, the new top economic adviser, collected $887,727 from Goldman Sachs for advice on a charity project on a recent hiatus from government.

There’s nothing new about this tradition – indeed there was a time not so long ago when it seemed as if actually running Goldman Sachs was a prerequisite for serving as Secretary of the Treasury. But the triple whammy of the financial crisis, the trillion-dollar government bailout and the return of lavish bonuses to many on Wall Street while unemployment in the United States is stuck above 9 percent has cast the intimacy between political and business elites in a new, often more jaundiced light.

To many U.S. business people, and to centrists in both parties, the concern that Mr. Obama’s White House is too close to business sounds absurd. Far from being a dangerous example of an overly intimate relationship between business and politics, Mr. Obama’s recent appointments, particularly of Mr. Daley, are seen as a welcome sign that the White House will work harder to bring business onto its side.

Raghuram Rajan on what makes a successful capitalist society

Chrystia Freeland
Dec 7, 2010 20:27 UTC

Raghuram Rajan of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business is #26 on Foreign Policy’s list of the 100 Top Global Thinkers of 2010. His big idea is: “capitalist economies work well when everybody has access to the basic conditions they need to compete: access to education, access to health care, and access to finance.” In the absence of these conditions, Rajan argues that a capitalist society will be beset by income inequality, political frictions, and rent-seeking behaviors that subvert healthy competition. Capitalism is at its best when it creates equal opportunity:

If we all started off at age 21, 22, somewhere there, with all the education we needed, all the access to finance we wanted, and reasonable health, and we were told, ‘Here’s a level playing field. Go out and compete.’ And 25 years later some did very well, some did not so well, I think we would all be reasonably satisfied with that outcome. And that’s really the ideal of capitalism. But we’re very far from that ideal. Where you’re  born matters a lot. Of course, what you make of it also matters, but to the extent that you can reduce the impact of where you’re born, what conditions you’re born under, and what kind of impediments that creates, I think capitalism is better for it.

Rajan’s recent book, Fault Lines — the most recommended book on FP’s survey of the Global Thinkers — looks at the recent financial crisis through this lens. In the lead-up to the crisis, many citizens of the United Stated lacked access to higher education, a prerequisite for many of today’s jobs. Median wages stagnated as a result, and the government faced pressure to do something about it. Washington responded with the short-term fix of expanding cheap credit, notably through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which temporarily masked the rise in income inequality but ultimately did nothing to address the structural issues of the U.S. economy.

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