In an interview that appeared in a German economics blog (translated version) James Galbraith explains why he believes widening income inequality is a sign of growing economic instability. He doesn’t assert there is a provable causal relationship, but he does give several reasons indicating there may be one.
RS: One thing that stood out and sort of surprised me was that inequality seems to follow the stock market.
JG: In the United States it certainly does, and there’s a very straightforward reason for that, which is that we measure inequality from tax records. Tax records are records of taxable income. Taxable income at the top of the scale is very closely correlated, it’s essentially determined by capital gains and stock options realizations and salary payments that come out of venture capital initial public offerings, things of that nature, and are very closely correlated to the level of asset prices in the stock market…
RS: How does this type of inequality really affect the well-being of people in general, given that pay inequality hasn’t changed much?
JG: Well, generally, it improves their well-being in the short run, because a stock boom is associated with higher rates of investment, job creation and more overtime pay throughout the workforce, and so if you separate out incomes of working people from the capital incomes, that sort of inequality actually goes down in the stock boom. A prime example of this is in the late 1990′s when overall income inequality goes up enormously as the result of a NASDAQ information technology boom, but inequality in the working population declines, the poverty levels decline because of the effect of that on economic activity. So this is not mysterious. It is why I think the emphasis should not be on the welfare effects of inequality, but on the instability.
RS: Do you suspect a causal relationship?
JG: Again, what I find in the data is that very rapidly rising inequality, which is something that one can measure, is associated with credit booms, and credit booms are followed by credit busts. This is part of a dialog that, well I’ll leave it at that and come back to how it fits into the discussion in economics. There’s a reason for stressing this particular point….
Beezer here. So in the late 1990s with the dot.com boom, although income inequality grew, the economic activity created causes poverty rates to decline. OK. So the ensuing dot.com bust was relatively minor compared to the Great Recession bust of 2008. Galbraith stresses credit growth as the culprit of causing economic instability.
JG: The money associated with a credit boom is largely created in the process of credit extension, it’s not something that comes out of the pockets of poorer people, there’s not a fixed sum of money, this is the mechanism of an unstable credit economy.
RS: The fact that the money is essentially, well it’s not really virtual, either, or is it?
JG: Money is a spreadsheet operation, all of it is virtual in that sense. Your bank does not maintain a large stack of notes with your name on it.
RS: What’s the link between inequality and poverty? Is there a link between inequality and poverty, or are these just two very different things? We think about poverty when we think about inequality. But is that really the same thing? Do they go together?
JG: I think one has to be careful about cases. In the U.S. case, where, as I say, we have been for thirty years, our moments of prosperity were of this highly unstable credit-driven type. The poverty rates went down in the booms and go up in the slumps, so they’re really quite different from the inequality numbers as measured in the tax records. On the other hand, they do reflect the strength of demand for labor in the bottom half of the wage structure because the numbers which one can measure separately for wage inequality are very closely correlated to the hours worked by people in low-paid jobs. The number of jobs they hold, the number of hours they work in each of them, all of that translates very directly into their weekly earnings, and in the booms, of course, that goes up.
Beezer again. Although the dot.com boom and bust were derived from equity prices, not debt, Galbraith still puts it in the too much credit category.
JG: We have many ways of measuring poverty, but there’s no question that in the booms, poverty rates fell. No question about that. By the end of the 1990′s, poverty rates for minorities in the United States were at all-time lows. That’s a direct consequence of the fact that you had three years of unemployment rates that were below four percent. The problem with that time – one can argue about the allocation of resources, could you have done better than spending all those hundreds of billions of dollars on internet start-ups that were going to go bust – but the problem of that time was not a poverty question, the problem of that time was that prosperity was built on a very unstable foundation.
RS: So essentially it’s the credit that makes the whole thing unstable, that credit is excessive…
JG: Yes, yes, yes, that’s exactly the point.
Beezer here again. OK so what about the effect of lower, or higher, marginal tax rates? Interestingly, before he gets to marginal tax rates, Galbraith asserts getting pre-tax distribution of income right is more effective than after-tax methods ie tax rates. Why? Because once you allow people to grab a huge share of income, there’s Hell to pay trying to raise top marginal rates in an effort to get some of it back.
JG: This has always been an interesting debate amongst economists for whom the professional credo has been that you should allow whatever distribution emerges before tax, and then redistribute through the tax system, and I’ve never thought that was very persuasive. I think what actually happens is that the distribution before tax is substantially a regulatory outcome, it’s an artifact of ex ante social decisions. It has to do with, among other things, minimum wages and the structure of trade unions and a great many other things in society, and that having an accepted pretax distribution that is fair is much more stable than trying to change things through the tax code, because you get an enormously powerful political resistance to doing that once you’ve allowed people to have the attribution of income to them pretax.
Beezer again. OK, having strong trade unions does have this kind of pre-tax distribution effect. But as we’ve seen in recent times, strengthening trade unions has not been the trend, weakening them has. And this weakening has, according to Galbraith, been a dynamic widening the income gap on the front end of income distribution. That said, Galbraith does go into the back end stuff, the tax rates issue.
the point of the ’86 act was to reduce the rates at the top, but to expand the base such as to be revenue-neutral, which it largely was. I think the long-term implications of the ’86 act are only now being recognized in the economics profession. A major thing that it did was to – and that’s true also of the earlier Reagan cuts – was to create a strong incentive for corporations to shift income directly to their chief executives. I think the CEO boom was partly an artifact of the reduction of marginal tax rates, and that had very pernicious effects on corporate governance in the United States. I wrote about this in a previous book, in The Predator State, and I’m now beginning to see some commentary. I know that Thomas Piketty has come to the same conclusion.
RS: How did that happen? I don’t quite understand.
JG: Well, if you have a high marginal rate, then you have an incentive to retain earnings in the corporation and pay the corporate tax rate and then to use the retained earnings in ways that add indirectly to the consumption of your top executives. You build a skyscraper with lovely penthouses in it, you have corporate aircraft, you have the whole aspect of this that characterized the way the big corporations presented themselves in the 50′s and 60′s in the United States. And they stopped building skyscrapers – when was the last time one was built? Probably the World Trade Center in 1970. There was very, very little after that, and corporations started building basically campuses, which are much cheaper, and instead funneling the money directly into the pockets of their chief executives.
RS: Okay, that makes sense.
JG: That’s what happened. I don’t know that that was entirely anticipated by the authors of the tax cuts in the 80′s.
Beezer again. So the back end effect of lowering top marginal rates on personal income, even if by closing loopholes it’s revenue neutral, has had some unanticipated consequences, including one of reducing retained earnings and company investment.
What do you think the effect is of the CEO boom on the economy? Does it set the wrong incentives?
JG: The main thing is that it creates a kind of very small class of, let’s say, of “personally empowered corporate executives” who are detached from the technical operations of their own enterprises by and large – that is to say, they are primarily financial people – and I think that has had a very significant effect on the way in which large American corporations operate. It has made them much more vulnerable to being downsized, having their physical operations manipulated for the sake of financial results.
RS: To put a value on that, that’s a pretty negative result.
Beezer here. Oh well, I suppose I’ll have to read the book in order to get all this digested. It should be stressed Galbraith is doing empirical research here. He’s not arguing causality, only highlighting correlations that seem to re-occur in recent history. We wrote in an earlier post about the mistake of omitted variable bias, where something ignored ends up skewing your conclusions away from the truth. Galbraith is going to great pains avoiding conclusions. He’s just hinting. I don’t have that problem of course. I want strong unions and I want higher top marginal tax rates on all income.
JG: Yes, I think that’s a pernicious result, for sure.
Beezer finally. For sure they are pernicious. We need to do both front end and back end reform in order to get the economic ship of state back on a sustainable even keel. As per usual thanks to Mark Thoma’s economist’s view blogsite for highlighting this German interview.