Popular Economics Weekly

We are in the deepest economic malaise since the Great Depression. And there is a good reason for it. We also have the greatest maldistribution of wealth since 1928. Researchers are finding that the two—the greatest inequality and greatest downturns—are intimately connected. So restoration of what is in effect our Middle Class, where at one time the majority of wealth resided, would restore both the jobs and financial health to an economy sorely out of balance.

This will not be easy. Witness the vociferous opposition to any restoration of equality—which conservatives label the redistribution of wealth to those less worthy, in their eyes. The current example is Republicans refusal to give up the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest, which would restore tax rates of the Clinton era when 22 million jobs were created.

The sad fact is that unless we do begin to level the economic playing field, we are fated to experience more boom and bust cycles that will only debilitate the U.S. economy further, and so our standing in the world. And history will continue to repeat itself. Roosevelt’s Federal Reserve Chairman, Marriner Eccles, understood in 1933 the main cause of the Great Depression.

“… a giant suction pump had by 1929-30 drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of currently produced wealth. This served them as capital accumulations. But by taking purchasing power out of the hands of mass consumers, the savers denied to themselves the kind of effective demand (my italics) for their products that would justify a reinvestment of their capital accumulations in new plants. In consequence, as in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When their credit ran out, the game stopped.”

Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez among others have documented the disappearance of Middle Class wealth (See Feb. 2003 Quarterly Journal of Economics). The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a non-partisan think tank, using Piketty and Saez data, verify that income and asset inequality has risen to levels last seen in the 1920s (see graphs).

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Income disparities before that crisis and the recent one were the greatest in approximately the last 100 years, according to Harvard Professor David Moss, who is among a small group of economists, sociologists and legal scholars trying to discover if income inequality contributes to financial crises. In 1928, the top 10 percent of earners received 49.29 percent of total income. In 2007, the top 10 percent earned a strikingly similar percentage: 49.74 percent. In 1928, the top 1 percent received 23.94 percent of income. In 2007, those earners received 23.5 percent.

There is no good reason for such wealth disparity, in spite of the severity of this Great Recession. It was a problem that began in the 1970s and only now is catching public attention. An estimated 43.6 million Americans in 2009 were living off incomes below the federal poverty line, or around $11,000 for an individual under 65 or $22,000 for a family of four. The total number, an increase of 3.7 million over 2008, is the largest in 51 years, since the government first started tracking poverty data.

And that is the main reason for the slowness of this recovery. “It’s no coincidence that the last time income was this concentrated was in 1928,” wrote former Labor Secretary Robert Reich in a recent Op-ed. Professor Reich hedges his bets, however. “I do not mean to suggest that such astonishing consolidations of income at the top directly cause sharp economics declines. The connection is more subtle.”

This debate goes back to the Great Depression, as we have said. By effective demand, Eccles was referring to what economists today define as aggregate demand. Eccles was maintaining that the growth in income inequality created a credit bubble that burst and so led to an sharp diminishment in aggregate demand, which is measured today by our Gross Domestic Product.

The relationship is intuitively simple, yet was hard to verify before Piketty and Saez, et.al., did their research. As more income flowed to the top income brackets, middle and lower income classes had to borrow more to keep up their consumption patterns. And the easy credit available with the housing bubble accelerated that borrowing, to the tune of $2.3 trillion extracted from housing in the last decade. But then the excess of supply produced during the bubble caused housing values to crash, losing more than $4 trillion and counting of the $11 trillion in housing assets.

Professor Reich says we have to find ways to raise the wages of working people—the 90 percent who have suffered stagnant wages since the 1970s. Lowering payroll taxes for the lowest income earners who spend most of their incomes, while restoring the Clinton era taxes on those earning more than $250,000 is the most discussed remedy for such income disparity.

In fact, the underlying effects of such income inequality hasn’t been researched at all. But a new book by Professors Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, “Winner Take-all Politics”, is beginning to give us a picture of its results.

Publisher Simon & Schuster’s advertising blurb succinctly describes their thesis: “Winner-Take-All Politics—part revelatory history, part political analysis, part intellectual journey— shows how a political system that traditionally has been responsive to the interests of the middle class has been hijacked by the superrich. In doing so, it not only changes how we think about American politics, but also points the way to rebuilding a democracy that serves the interests of the many rather than just those of the wealthy few.”

There is some good news on the wealth redistribution front. Forty billionaires led by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates have pledged to donate one-half of their wealth to philanthropic causes. From Ted Turner to George Lucas, these 40 billionaires joined Warren Buffett and Bill Gates in making the pledge as part of their The Giving Pledge, a campaign launched earlier this year "to urge wealthy individuals to give the majority of their money to charities of their choice either during their lifetime or after their death," said one headline. If only more of the superrich would follow their example.

Why would they do so? Because it not only helps to build their wealth, but the wealth of those who have lost so much to the wealthiest since the 1970s. This is an economic fact—that greater wealth equality creates more wealth for all—that is increasingly difficult to deny. We are only now becoming aware of the damage that such unequal wealth has wrought to our economy via the excesses of Wall Street and deregulation. It is something that economists weren’t really aware of until Piketty and Saenz did their groundbreaking research.

Harlan Green © 2010