Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Income Inequality Stifles Economic Growth

  Annie Lowery @ New York Times:
Income inequality has soared to the highest levels since the Great Depression and the recession has done little to reverse the trend, with the top 1 percent of earners taking 93 percent of the income gains in the first full year of the recovery.

The yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots — and the political questions that gap has raised about the plight of the middle class — has given rise to anti-Wall Street sentiment and animated the presidential campaign. Now, a growing body of economic research suggests that it might mean lower levels of economic growth and slower job creation in the years ahead, as well. 

“Growth becomes more fragile” in countries with high levels of inequality like the United States, said Jonathan D. Ostry of the International Monetary Fund, whose research suggests that the widening disparity since the 1980s might shorten the nation’s economic expansions by as much as a third. 

Reducing inequality and bolstering growth, in the long run, might be “two sides of the same coin,” research published last year by the I.M.F. concluded. 

In the United States, since the 1980s, rich households have earned a larger and larger share of overall income. The 1 percent earns about one-sixth of all income and the top 10 percent about half, according to statistics compiled by the respected economists Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley, and Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics. 

For years, economists have thought of such inequality in part as a side effect of policies that fostered the country’s economic dynamism — its tax preferences for investment income, for instance. And organizations like the World Bank and the I.M.F., which is based in Washington, have generally not tackled inequality elsewhere in the world head on. 

But economists’ thinking has changed sharply in recent years. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this year warned about the “negative consequences” of the country’s high levels of pay inequality, and suggested an aggressive series of changes to tax and spending programs to tackle it. 

The I.M.F. has cautioned the United States, too. “Some dismiss inequality and focus instead on overall growth — arguing, in effect, that a rising tide lifts all boats,” a commentary by fund economists said. “When a handful of yachts become ocean liners while the rest remain lowly canoes, something is seriously amiss.” 

The concentration of income in the hands of the rich might not just mean a more unequal society, economists believe. It might translate into less stable economic expansions and more sluggish growth. 

That is the conclusion drawn by two economists at the fund, Mr. Ostry and Andrew G. Berg. They found that in rich countries and poor, inequality strongly correlated with shorter spells of economic expansion and thus less growth over time...

The recession seems to have cemented the country’s income and wealth inequality, not reversed it. The top 10 percent earn a larger share of overall income than they have since the 1930s. The earnings of the top 1 percent took a knock during the recession, but have bounced back. In contrast, the average working family’s income has continued to decline through the anemic recovery. 

The distribution of wealth has become more concentrated as well. The lower income a family earns, the more wealth they tend to hold in their housing. Housing values have plummeted, and are not expected to recover for years if not decades. At the same time, many bond prices have soared and stock prices have performed well, aiding the upper-income households that tend to hold investments.

A new study by the left-of-center Economic Policy Institute, a research group in Washington, has found that the top 1 percent of households now hold a larger share of overall wealth than the bottom 90 percent does. From 1983 to 2010, about three-quarters of the total growth in household wealth accrued to the top 5 percent of households. Low-income and middle-income households, on aggregate, actually got poorer over that same period. 

Policy experts and politicians across the political spectrum — including President Obama and Mitt Romney — argue that restoring the middle class will be crucial to driving growth. But they disagree sharply on the proper policies to do so, particularly when it comes to taxes and government transfer programs. 

“What worries me is the idea that we’re in a vicious cycle,” said Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics who has studied inequality extensively. “Increasing inequality means a weaker economy, which means increasing inequality, which means a weaker economy. That economic inequality feeds into political economy, so the ability to stabilize the economy gets weaker.”...

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