MacroScope

Inequality and the crisis: the other missing link of macroeconomics?

Ever since an epic financial crisis hit the United States in 2008, mainstream economists, most of whom utterly failed to foresee the oncoming train wreck, have been scrambling to introduce a financial sector dimension to their models. It was a conventional approach that detached the study of financial stability from macroeconomic variables, the narrative goes, that prevented the experts from seeing the build-up of an unsustainable housing bubble that, when it crashed, took down the economy down with it.

Research by James Galbraith, professor of public policy at the University of Texas at Austin, suggests finance is only one blind spot for the economics profession. Another key and increasingly relevant factor in the public debate that has been largely ignored is the issue of inequality. The first chapter of Galbraith’s latest book, “Inequality and Instability,” begins like this:

In the late 1990s, standard measures of income inequality in the United States – and especially of the income shares held by the very top echelon – rose to levels not seen since 1929. It is not strange that this should give rise (and not for the first time) to the suspicion that there might be a link, under capitalism, between radical inequality and financial crisis.

The link, of course, runs through debt. For those with a little money, it is said, the spur of invidious comparison produces a want for more, and what cannot be earned must be borrowed. For those with no money, made numerous by inequality and faced with exigent needs, there is also the ancient remedy of a loan. The urges and the needs, for bad and for good, are abetted by the aggressive desire of those with money to lend to those with less. They produce a pattern of consumption that at times appears broadly egalitarian; the rich and the poor alike own televisions and drive automobiles, and until recently in America members of both groups even owned their homes.

But the terms are rarely favorable; indeed, the whole profit in making loans to the needy lies in getting a return upfront. There will come a day, for many of them, when the promise to pay in full cannot be kept.

Interview: Richmond Fed’s Lacker on Libor, ‘soggy’ growth and the limits of monetary policy

There appears to have been a significant slowdown in the second quarter. In particular we saw the pace of job creation slowed to a pace of 75,000 per month in the second quarter down from 226,000 in the first quarter and there are also concerns about slowing growth globally, beyond Europe but also in the emerging world and China, which was highlighted in the minutes (to the June meeting) this week. So, where do you think we’re headed? Are we just going to remain in a soft kind of pace? Are there upside risks to growth? Are there downside risks to growth?

Growth has definitely softened. The data are unmistakably weaker in the second quarter than we had hoped they would be. I think everyone recognized the first quarter and the end of last year were a little bit stronger than we might be able to sustain in the middle of the year but it’s definitely come in softer than I’d expected.

At the beginning of the year, it seemed as if Europe wouldn’t maybe weaken as much as we thought but lately the weakening from Europe has been coming online. In the U.S., I think we’re in a situation where we’re going to fluctuate from between the level where we are now to a level that’s more like we saw six or eight months ago. We’re going to have soggy patches, we’re going to have stronger spurts. If you look back over the last three years that’s the record you see. I don’t see a reason for that to change markedly.

JP Morgan Houston janitor wants Jamie Dimon to walk in her shoes

Just as the proverbial shoemaker’s children can go without shoes so, apparently, can a cleaner of corporate office bathrooms not have time for a bathroom break. And with the lack of time to use one of the 24 bathrooms Adriana Vasquez must clean in a five-hour shift at the JP Morgan Chase Tower in Houston, Texas – 22 of them with multiple stalls – comes the absence of a living wage.

So on Tuesday, Vasquez had a question for JP Morgan Chief Jamie Dimon, whose bank is the prime tenant in the 60-story building where she cleans bathrooms five evenings a week.

“Why do you deny the people cleaning your buildings a living wage?” she asked Dimon after he testified about the bank’s multi-billion dollar trading loss in front of Congressional committees on financial institutions and consumer credit. Dimon said to call his office to arrange a meeting, according to the Service Employees International Union.

The U.S. productivity farce

Economists don’t agree on much but they do tend to converge on one idea – productivity improvements are the key to long-term prosperity. Except that who benefits from productivity increases matters as much as the efficiency gains themselves, according to two reports from the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

The first finds that rising income inequality in the United States means that the benefits of better productivity are accruing mainly to the very wealthy. The EPI offers this startling nugget of data as basic food for thought: U.S. productivity grew 80.4 percent from 1973 to 2011, while average hourly compensation rose just 39.2 percent in the same period, and median compensation, which excludes outliers, gained a paltry 10.7 percent.

Writes Lawrence Mishel, EPI president and author of the reports:

Productivity growth, which is the growth of the output of goods and services per hour worked, provides the basis for the growth of living standards. However, the experience of the vast majority of workers in recent decades has been that productivity growth actually provides only the potential for rising living standards: Recent history, especially since 2000, has shown that wages and compensation for the typical worker and income growth for the typical family have lagged tremendously behind the nation’s fast productivity growth.

High inequality makes it tougher to reform economies: Swedish Finance Minister

Americans are all too acquainted with the shouting-match politics that tends to accompany any debate over economic policy: everyone is yelling and nobody is listening. The toxic political discord in Washington has become so familiar it is almost a cliché.

It turns out high levels of income inequality, which the United States is also famous for, could be to blame. According to Anders Borg, the Finance Minister of Sweden, a large wealth gap makes it harder to achieve political consensus because the debate is poisoned by mistrust. Speaking at the Peterson Institute this week, Borg said high inequality in Southern Europe was a factor preventing those countries from achieving agreement as they struggle with a deep financial crisis:

You need to deal with the social cohesion issue. You cannot have a society where the conflicts that are built in become so strong that you undermine the political ability to deal with problems. If I compared Sweden with Spain or Italy or Greece, one of the reasons we have been able to these reforms is that our income differences are substantially lower which also means that the political tension is on a completely different level.

A highly unequal U.S. recovery

No wonder most Americans feel like the recession never ended. A new paper from Emmanuel Saez, a Berkeley professor and expert on inequality, shows the overwhelming majority of income gains – 93 percent – accrued in 2010, the first full year of the U.S. recovery, went to the top 1 percent richest Americans. (Thanks to our friends at Counterparties for bringing the paper to our attention.)

The research suggests economic growth, even if it gathers speed, will not be nearly sufficient to close the income gap that has been the target of national Occupy protests. Instead, only drastic tax reforms of the sort seen during the 1930s might do the trick.

In 2010, average real income per family grew by 2.3% but the gains were very uneven. Top 1% incomes grew by 11.6% while bottom 99% incomes grew only by 0.2%. Hence, the top 1% captured 93% of the income gains in the first year of recovery. Such an uneven recovery can help explain the recent public demonstrations against inequality. It is likely that this uneven recovery has continued in 2011 as the stock market has continued to recover.

Is there a skills gap at the Fed?

Ask most economists why the distribution of wealth in the United States has become so unequal over the last three decades and they will likely offer a two word answer: skills gap. They point out that Americans with a college education have a lower jobless rate than those without one, and that better-educated workers make more money than their counterparts.

Yet as regional Federal Reserve presidents disclosed their personal asset holdings for the first time ever, the figures showed a gaping range: from the tens of thousands to the tens of millions.

The report showed the wealthiest officials, Richard Fisher and William Dudley of the Dallas and New York Feds respectively, made millions working the financial industry – Fisher running a hedge fund and Dudley as chief U.S. economist and partner at Goldman Sachs. It would be tough to argue that the two are any more skilled than the career PhD Fed economists who were at the bottom of the list.

Growth not enough to ease inequality: Oxfam

Rising income inequality in rich nations has cast doubt on the old adage, often upheld by the economics profession, that a rising tide lifts all boats. A new report from Oxfam reinforces the notion that wealth does not trickle down of its own accord. The anti-poverty advocacy group says sometimes actively redistributive policies may be needed to address huge income gaps. It also says that, contrary to conventional economic thinking, such policies will directly contribute to better growth rather than impede it.

Inequality, often viewed as an inevitable result of economic progress, in fact acts as a brake on growth. Among the best ways to assure inclusive, sustainable growth and fight poverty, finds the study, are policies that reduce inequality. […]

Inequality erodes the social fabric, and severely limits individuals’opportunities to escape poverty. Where income inequality is high or growing, the evidence is clear that economic growth has significantly less impact on poverty: a trickle-down approach does not work.

Martin Luther King’s vampire squid: poverty

The devastating U.S. recession of 2008-2009 has highlighted the problems of income inequality and poverty in the world’s richest nation. In 2010, the last year for which data is available, the number of U.S. poor hit a record 46 million. As the country celebrates the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, a look back at the civil rights’ leaders remarks on the subject are enlightening – if only for their continue relevance nearly half a century later:

(One) evil which plagues the modern world is that of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, it projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles in lands and villages all over the world. Almost two-thirds of the peoples of the world go to bed hungry at night. They are undernourished, ill-housed, and shabbily clad. Many of them have no houses or beds to sleep in. Their only beds are the sidewalks of the cities and the dusty roads of the villages. Most of these poverty-stricken children of God have never seen a physician or a dentist. This problem of poverty is not only seen in the class division between the highly developed industrial nations and the so-called underdeveloped nations; it is seen in the great economic gaps within the rich nations themselves.

Take my own country for example. We have developed the greatest system of production that history has ever known. We have become the richest nation in the world. Our national gross product this year will reach the astounding figure of almost 650 billion dollars. Yet, at least one-fifth of our fellow citizens – some ten million families, comprising about forty million individuals – are bound to a miserable culture of poverty. In a sense the poverty of the poor in America is more frustrating than the poverty of Africa and Asia. The misery of the poor in Africa and Asia is shared misery, a fact of life for the vast majority; they are all poor together as a result of years of exploitation and underdevelopment. In sad contrast, the poor in America know that they live in the richest nation in the world, and that even though they are perishing on a lonely island of poverty they are surrounded by a vast ocean of material prosperity. Glistening towers of glass and steel easily seen from their slum dwellings spring up almost overnight. Jet liners speed over their ghettoes at 600 miles an hour; satellites streak through outer space and reveal details of the moon.

Two cheers for financial innovation

Protests against Wall Street and the U.S. financial system are hanging over an annual gathering of economists and social scientists in Chicago. Yale economist Robert Shiller offered two cheers for capitalist finance, saying that while the U.S. free market system has contributed to higher living standards, the vehemence of the recent public outcry points to a need for greater democratization. This is how he put it in a speech:

Occupy Wall Street … was something that in some sense you could see coming. I think we have increasing concerns about inequality, which is getting worse, about the distribution of power.

But rather than throw the financial system out, Shiller called for tinkering. Financial institutions and structures such as insurance or mortgage securitization have a role in improving social and human welfare, Shiller argued. U.S. economic success is due to a financial system that has evolved over centuries and helped improve the quality of life, he added.  A shortcoming of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it doesn’t accept those contributions, he said.