The Defining Problem of Our Age

Ezra Klein argues that inequality should not be shaping political discourse to the extent that it is. That’s probably true. But this article misses a few important points and, I think, doesn’t do the best job of characterizing the progressive argument. Or maybe we’re in agreement, and I’ve misunderstood – it’s hard to tell (though, given that I’m commenting on a Wonkblog post, more likely than not).

A quick preface. Arguing that “unemployment and growth, not inequality, will be the defining problem” of our age is dissonant beyond the mutual causality (which is not very well founded) Ezra acknowledges simply because inequality is only a problem when growth is a problem. I don’t remember much about the 90s – intellectually, my generation really was born of financial crisis and political gridlock – but it’s hard for many Americans to think of the Clinton era, despite rising inequality, as a bad time due to high rates of job creation and growth. Polls suggest that perception of inequality and class warfare are worse than usual – vindicated by both the Occupy and Tea Party movements.

As long as your income is growing – even if not nearly as quickly as financiers on Wall Street – it’s not hard to foolishly convince yourself that you have a same shot at those riches as the millionaire next door (Americans ubiquitously believe that equality of opportunity is a worthwhile goal). But when the music stops the story changes. Inequality is a problem, politically and economically, precisely because of secular stagnation.

That, by itself at least, does not mean inequality is the defining problem of our age. It’s worthwhile dividing problems into two categories: those that are urgent, and those that are important. It is also worthwhile noting that usually one does not imply the other. Let me be absolutely clear: the most urgent problem facing America today is unemployment. This is almost incontrovertible. Both progressives arguing that inequality is and conservatives arguing that deficits are urgent do discourse a disservice.

But candidates for the most important problem are more diverse still. Existentially, there is little more daunting than the tail risks from climate change. If the United States, China, and India do not legislate strict carbon taxes into law within the next two decades many other debates will become moot.

Less apocalyptic, but important over the long run still, are rising inequality and secular stagnation. But it is difficult to argue that growth is a uniquely more challenging problem than inequality. It is easy – and right – to rail against the stale debate that we ought to tax the one percent five percent more (as if that will solve anything), but (contra Dylan) most solutions to unemployment will actually increase both opportunity and equality. The Wonkblog post suggests most of the connection between inequality and growth come from a persistent demand shortfall resulting from income earned by those with a higher marginal propensity to save.

And while this has dominated some progressives corners of the blogosphere over the past week, it’s hardly the most important link between the two. Curing unemployment results in a tighter labor force which eventually results in what economists call a wage-price spiral as workers expect inflation to rise, and demand higher wages, forcing inflation to rise. As the unit cost of labor rises quicker than that of capital, we would hopefully see a return of labor share and general prosperity.

The best way to increase wages, employment, and equality would be for the government to contract labor supply by hiring all unemployed workers who want a job in menial, labor-intensive positions. This would increase inflation, reduce the primary balance, and force unskilled wages to increase more rapidly than cost of capital (human or physical).

Most things we do to reduce inequality would also increase growth, at least in the economic model (thematically, not rigorously) employed by proponents of secular stagnation like Paul Krugman or Larry Summers. The best way to deal with inequality would be to increase some form of handout, financed by a deficit, which would aid inequality and growth at the same time. In fact, other than the second-best solution of the minimum wage, it’s not easy to think of something that – within the Keynesian model many people in this conversation favor – would reduce inequality without improving growth.

Neither inequality nor growth are the “defining problem of our time”, but they are born of the same ill, low aggregate demand. In times when demand is high, society will tolerate much more inequality and growth will be limited by supply-side factors. In fact, that’s the reason growth per se is not a problem of our time. If we were experiencing inflation despite low growth rates, it is difficult for the wonks of the world to do anything about it. That is the realm of science and engineering.

But we’re not there yet and, as far as I can see, the most convincing arguments suggest that both inequality and growth are first cousins. You would really need a Republican to find a way to better one without bettering the other (and, arguably, the farm bill is a perfect example to this effect).

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