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Why the Economy Doesn't Work without a Strong Middle Class
By David Madland
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Middle Out vs. Trickle Down
On April 30, 2012, Edward Conard, a former partner for the financial management company Bain Capital and multimillionaire who retired at age fifty-one, sat across from Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, to promote his new book. Conard smiled and stared intently through his black-rimmed glasses as Jon Stewart, the liberal host of the comedy show, held up his book and described its contents. Conard's book argued that America's economy would be stronger if people like Conard were even richer and the country had even higher levels of economic inequality.
Stewart was puzzled by Conard's argument and joked that it didn't seem right because inequality in the United States was approaching the level in countries with "kidnapping-based economies," generating laughter in the audience. Then Stewart shifted to an opening that would give Conard a chance to explain himself. "My question to you about the premise of the book," Stewart stated, pausing for effect before setting up his punch line, "is huh?"
Conard laughed along with the audience, and then launched into his argument that great rewards for the "most talented" people were the secret to America's success. Making the rich richer is good for everyone, he claimed, because high levels of inequality provide strong incentives for risk taking and innovation that are essential for economic growth.
Though Conard's comments were provocative—indeed his book tour generated significant press, including a multipage feature in the New York Times Magazine —he was merely stating the barely hidden premise underlying supply-side economics. Supply-side economics, the misguided theory that has controlled economic policymaking for the past three decades, is built on the idea that inequality is good. Tax cuts for the rich and less regulation of business supposedly provide incentives for the wealthy to invest and work more. Enabling "job creators" to get richer helps us all, the theory goes.
Conard's former boss at Bain, Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican Party nominee for president, ran on a platform of supply-side policies, as have virtually all Republicans since Ronald Reagan was elected president. Even a number of prominent Democrats support supply-side policies and logic. Not only do these wrongheaded ideas about inequality have great political influence, but—until quite recently—they were largely shared by academic economists. For the past several decades, the idea that high levels of inequality were good for the economy dominated economic thought.
Fortunately, these flawed ideas are beginning to be challenged. Academics have begun to rethink their views about the decline of the middle class and progressive politicians are finally starting to openly contest the logic underlying supply side after years of failing to do so. It is about time because our economy is suffering deeply from a financial crash caused in large part by high levels of inequality. And though we may not have a kidnapping-based economy, as Stewart joked, the American middle class is so weakened that we are experiencing the kinds of problems that plague less-developed countries, including high levels of societal distrust that make it hard to do business, governmental favors for privileged elites that distort the economy, and fewer opportunities for children of the middle class and the poor to get ahead, wasting vast quantities of human potential.
This book explains the rethinking of inequality that is happening in academia and in politics. The American economy has been thrown off balance because the middle class is so weakened and inequality so high. An economy that works only for the rich simply doesn't work. To have strong and sustainable growth, the economy needs to work for everyone.
A strong middle class is not merely the result of a strong economy—as was previously thought—but rather a source of America's economic growth. Rebuilding the middle class would provide the stable base of consumer demand necessary to increase business investment and job creation. It would also enable the country to fully develop the human capital of its people, increase the social trust that makes transactions possible, and balance political power to produce a government that works for the whole country, not just those at the top.
Elements of this line of thinking date back to some of history's most prominent economists—from John Stuart Mill to John Maynard Keynes—but until the Great Recession of 2007–2009 snapped the field back to attention, most economists ignored the importance of the middle class. Now, as they revise their models and assumptions that failed to predict the financial crisis, economists are rediscovering classic scholars, opening their eyes to the work of researchers in other fields such as history, political science, and sociology, and developing promising new lines of inquiry to try to understand the role of the middle class.
Hollowed Out brings together this long-standing and recent research. The book shows how the hollowing out of the middle class has harmed the US economy, clarifies how previous thought got it so wrong, and illuminates how this new middle-out synthesis could shape economic policymaking for generations to come.
To some readers, the argument that America's economy grows from the middle out, not from the top down, might seem intuitive and uncontroversial. But the argument is a direct criticism of conventional wisdom in academia and in politics. That a relatively simple and commonsense approach to the economy presents a radical challenge to the status quo indicates just how far off base economists and politicians went over the past few decades, and it explains why this book is necessary.
Edward Conard is more explicit about the supposed benefits of inequality than most supporters of supply-side policies. But from its beginnings, supply-side proponents have argued that inequality is good for the economy. Jude Wanniski, an economist and editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, who wrote the The Way the World Works in 1978, which helped put supply-side economics on the map, claimed that the "basic economic problem that for all time has confronted the global electorate ... is the tension between income growth and income distribution." For the good of the country, Wanniski maintained, income growth was the right choice and that required reducing taxes, especially on the wealthy, and greater levels of inequality.
George Gilder, an early promoter of supply side, put it more bluntly in Wealth and Poverty, published in 1981: "Equality ... [is] inconsistent with the disciplines and investment of economic and technical advance." Gilder was very clear that economic growth required a select group of people to become very rich. "Material progress is ineluctably elitist," he wrote. "It makes the rich richer and increases their numbers, exalting a few extraordinary men who can produce wealth over the democratic masses who consume it." President Ronald Reagan—the first powerful political proponent of trickle-down—frequently quoted Gilder and in a speech in 1982 put Gilder in his own words by arguing that "we're the party that wants to see an America in which people can still get rich." Because of this belief that helping the rich get richer will cause economic benefits to drip onto the middle class and poor, detractors of supply-side economics often call it trickle-down.
For decades, academic economists helped provide cover for trickle-down economics and the obvious harm it was doing to the middle class and the economy. Most academics didn't buy into all of supply-side dogma—they rejected the idea that tax cuts pay for themselves, for example—but in general the logic of the theory fit with many of their preconceptions about inequality and economic incentives. Until quite recently, the vast majority of the economics profession believed—like supply-siders do—that inequality helped the economy to function properly. Even those who were troubled by high levels of inequality generally felt it was necessary for the good of the economy. According to the standard view in economics, policymakers faced a trade-off between economic growth and economic equality.
This underpinning of economic thought was most clearly demonstrated by Arthur Okun, a Yale University economist and the chief economic advisor to President Lyndon Johnson, in his book Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff, published in 1975. Inequality, according to Okun, provided positive incentives that encouraged people to work hard and invest, making the economy more efficient. Further, Okun claimed that efforts to reduce inequality generally involved some level of waste that hindered the economy. Though Okun argued that the trade-off between equity and growth was less than most economists thought, the fact that even a liberal economist believed that high levels of economic inequality were good for the economy underscores how ingrained the idea was in economics departments.
At the time Okun wrote, the American middle class was still relatively strong and inequality low. But soon after his book was published, inequality began rising and the middle class weakened. Most economists were untroubled. Some even defended the changes. Indeed, a keynote address at the American Economic Association conference in 1999—the main association for academic economics—was titled "In Defense of Inequality," and argued that "inequality is an economic 'good' that has received too much bad press." The keynote speaker, Finis Welch, was later elected by his colleagues as vice president of the economics association.
Economists thought this way about inequality because the kind of logic they used ignored many of the downsides of inequality. Economists generally believe that long-run economic growth is determined by the productive use of physical capital, such as buildings and factories, and human capital, the knowledge that people have. The key to economic growth, then, is to provide the right incentives to encourage people to increase the supply of human and physical capital and make more efficient use of them. A greater payoff for people who increase society's capital—holding everything else equal—seemingly provides the right incentives.
Holding everything else equal is of course key to making this logic work. But, as inequality has risen to extreme levels in the United States, everything else has not remained equal: the foundations of the economy have weakened. Society has changed so that people trust one another less and are reluctant to do business with one another. Government has become captured by the elites. Opportunities for the less well off to get an education and develop their skills have weakened in comparison to the rich. And the nature of consumer demand has changed and become less stable.
Most economists got it so wrong because they were trained to think of individuals as untouched by institutional or social influences. In the economic worldview, individuals act based on their narrow self-interest. Supposedly, according to most economic models, this leads to efficient results without much need for social or legal constraints. As a result, economists generally ignored the importance of good government and societal trust to a properly functioning economy. On the rare occasions they did look at these issues, it was almost always to study developing countries—not the United States—and thus they missed that these basic underpinnings of growth in America were sharply deteriorating.
Even for factors that economists commonly studied, such as demand and human capital, they hardly considered how the economy was impacted by a weakened middle class. Economic analysis of consumer demand and its relationship to economic growth was generally based on a stylized version of a typical consumer and ignored the impact of growing differences in income, wealth, and debt. As a result, on the eve of the Great Recession most economists failed to recognize that consumer demand was dependent on middleclass debt and thus unstable. In a similar vein, too many studies of human capital and economic growth assumed that because some inequality provides an incentive for individuals to acquire greater skills, extremely high levels of inequality must be a good thing. Though some economists were able to recognize that inequality had the potential to hinder the development of human capital, the profession rarely reflected on whether this was harming America's growth. It didn't take much looking to see that inequality was so high that it was providing much greater opportunities for the children of the rich to develop their human capital while the children of the poor and middle class were falling behind. Nor did it take great insight to consider the broader impact this was having on the economy, but few made the connections.
Because of these widespread failures, in 2007, on the brink of the Great Recession, most economists were caught unaware that the ground supporting the American economy was collapsing. They missed the forest for the trees.
Economists originally incorporated a broad conception of humanity and society in their study: Adam Smith, the founder of the discipline, was a moral philosopher as well as a political economist after all. But, over the past five or six decades, economists who wanted to study the influence of government or cultural factors or challenge the hyperrational view of economic-man were relegated to the fringes. As a result, the study of economics in recent decades has often been "asocial and ahistorical," according to Ben Fine, an economist at the University of London, and Dimitris Milonakis, an economist at the University of Crete.
Criticisms of the excessively narrow and theoretical perspective of the economics profession have come not just from those on the outside, but also from some of the most credentialed economists in the world. And since the Great Recession, criticism has been particularly forceful. Nobel Prize–winning economist Ronald Coase, for example, wrote in an essay in 2012 that "ignoring the influences of society, history, culture and politics on the working of the economy" is "suicidal" for the field of economics. Similarly, Thomas Piketty, the French economist who some leading economists think will win the Nobel Prize for his work on inequality, argues in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published in 2014: "The discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences."
To be sure, economists—like all social scientists—need to make simplifications and set aside certain factors from analysis in order to try to understand the complex system they are studying. Yet the simplifications that economists made were fundamentally flawed because they ignored issues that were critical to the economy. As a result, they turned a blind eye—or even gave their blessings—as trickle-down policies and changes in the global economy drove inequality to record levels and significantly weakened the middle class.
THE WEAKENING MIDDLE CLASS
The United States was founded as a middle-class country. On the eve of the American Revolution, America's carpenters, shopkeepers, and farmers enjoyed a higher standard of living than workers in other parts of the world. Further, economic inequality was lower in the United States than any place else. In an era of kings and peasants, America's middle class stood apart.
America had its share of rich people, and of course it had slavery. But even so, the rich were not that much richer than the middle class. As Peter Lindert, an economic historian at UC Davis, explains: "Compared to any other country from which we have data, America in that era was more equal." Those who lived during America's founding sensed that the country's economic equality was special. Thomas Jefferson noted in a letter that "we have no paupers.... The great mass of our population ... possess property [and] cultivate their own lands.... The wealthy, on the other hand, and those at their ease, know nothing of what the Europeans call luxury."
The strength of America's middle class ebbed and flowed over time, especially as industrialization took hold. But after World War II, America returned to its roots and built a mass middle class that was the envy of the world, with rapidly rising incomes and decreasing inequality. The mid-1940s to the mid-1970s was a period "without extremes of wealth or poverty," as Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman explains. To be clear, America in this era had rich people and poor people, but the bulk of society formed a prosperous middle class that was in relatively close proximity to both the top and the bottom.
Yet, over the past three to four decades, middle-class America has come undone. The American middle class was already hurting when the Great Recession struck and is now in deep trouble. While there's no official definition of the middle class, it's not hard to see that it is in decline. By most every measure, most Americans are struggling.
First, there is the basic level of income earned by the typical American. Median household income—meaning half make more and half make less—was lower in 2013 than it was in 1989. This means that middle-class households now earn less than they did two decades ago. Similarly, incomes for poor and even upper-middle-class households have also stagnated. It is true that over an even longer time period, the middle class have seen some income gains. But these gains have been quite small: over the past four decades, median compensation, including both wages and benefits, has grown at a snail's pace of just 0.27 percent per year—far slower than the overall economy or output per worker. The miniscule gains that households have made have largely come because women have increasingly entered the workforce—meaning families are working longer hours, as they run faster and faster to stay in place. Indeed, the hourly wage earned by a typical man is less than it was in 1973.
Excerpted from Hollowed Out by David Madland. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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