Opinion

Lawrence Summers

On inequality

Lawrence Summers
Feb 17, 2014 04:29 UTC

Inequality has emerged as a major economic issue in the United States and beyond.

Sharp increases in the share of income going to the top 1 percent of earners, a rising share of income going to profits, stagnant real wages, and a rising gap between productivity growth and growth in median family income are all valid causes for concern. A generation ago, it could have been plausibly asserted that the economy’s overall growth rate was the dominant determinant of growth in middle-class incomes and progress in reducing poverty. This is no longer plausible. The United States may well be on the way to becoming a Downton Abbey economy.

So concern about inequality and its concomitants is warranted. Issues associated with an increasingly unequal distribution of economic rewards will likely be with us long after the cyclical conditions have normalized and budget deficits finally addressed.

Those who condemn President Barack Obama’s concern about inequality as “tearing down the wealthy” and un-American populism have, to put it politely, limited historical perspective. Consider a sampling of past presidential rhetoric.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, talking about the financial industry in his first Inaugural Address in 1933, said “Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion …. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision and when there is no vision the people perish.”

Focus on equality of opportunity, not outcomes

Lawrence Summers
Jul 15, 2012 21:52 UTC

Even if the process of economic recovery proves protracted, the American economy will eventually recover, and cyclical issues will cease to dominate the economic conversation. It is likely that issues relating to inequality will move to the forefront. There is no question that income is distributed substantially more unequally than it was a generation ago – with those at the very top gaining share as even the upper middle class loses ground in relative terms. Those with less skill, especially men who in an earlier era would have worked with their hands, are losing ground, not just in relative but in absolute terms.

These issues frame an important part of the economic debate in this election year. Progressives argue that widening inequality jeopardizes the legitimacy of our political and economic system. They contend that at a time when the market is generating more inequality, we should not be shifting tax burdens from those with the highest incomes to the middle class, as has taken place over the last dozen years. And while they recognize that Steve Jobs earned his billions providing great value to consumers and making a substantial contribution to the American and global economies, they also point out that the social value associated with the activities giving rise to many other fortunes, especially in the financial sector, is less apparent.

Conservatives argue that in a world where everything is increasingly mobile, high tax rates run more risk of driving businesses and jobs overseas than they once did. They point out the central role of entrepreneurship in advancing economic growth and note that since most new ventures fail, the returns of success have to be very large if entrepreneurship is going to flourish. They take umbrage at the suggestion implicit in some political rhetoric on inequality that there is something wrong with success on a grand scale. And they worry that policy measures taken to directly combat inequality will have perverse side effects.

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