Not long after my short stint in the PhD program began, I was talking to a few other students about our proposed dissertation topics. When I mentioned that mine involved economic geography, another student smiled and noted the faddishness of the theory, how it was the latest, hip notion for explaining the vast differences between rich and poor countries in the world. How long, someone else wondered, before it was consigned to the scrap heap, replaced with another growth pitch for the Third World? But why should it be? I responded. The problem wasn’t with our ideas, I said. The problem is that we only give people one solution at a time.
It’s a symptom of the political process, I think, that that’s so often the case. Economic policy prescriptions are complicated. They require people to do lots of different things, many of which are politically difficult, and all of which require patience. It’s no wonder that the economic ideas which are most successful in the political world tend to be vastly oversimplified, stripped of nuance, and hamhandedly applied. A circumspect economist would say that smart economic development requires a good macroeconomic environment, favorable geography, strong institutions, investment in human capital, and so on and so forth. But circumspect economists tend not to get Washington’s ear, at least not while they’re being circumspect, and what we end up with is the tragically incomplete gospel that cutting deficits and stabilizing the currency equals growth. And sometimes it works, but often it fails spectacularly, and everyone wants to shoot the economists.
I therefore think it’s worthwhile to remind people that the latest hip explanation does not and should not exist in a vacuum. In reading this buzzed about piece by Jonathan Chait (and some of the many responses to it), I have been startled by the either-or thinking expressed by the writers. They’re beginning to make me believe that I fundamentally don’t understand how Washington thinks about policy.
The rise in incomes of the super-rich, and the way that they have left the majority of Americans behind strikes me as a real problem that defies many of the economic explanations that myself and others have used to illustrate recent patterns in growth and inequality. It seems probable that the “power hypothesis” for this phenomenon is correct. By all means, let’s figure out how to constrain the ability of the mega-earners to draw off the surplus we’re all creating. Unionize, if that’s the answer. It’s a problem that needs fixing.
But here’s the thing. These pieces conclude that policy isn’t behind the problem; power is. It isn’t deficit reduction or tax cuts or technology change or globalization that’s causing the very rich to get very, very rich–it’s changes in political power. And yet, many of these writers seem ready to reject good policy all the same. There’s no way that skill-biased technological change can explain the way that the top 1% of earners have separated from the rest of the pack, so let’s reject that as an explanation for anything, they seem to say. Deficit reduction and global openness didn’t head off this rise in inequality, they note, so we must reject Rubinomics.
But that doesn’t make sense. If policy isn’t at fault, then why reject the policy, especially if it’s good policy? In fact, deficit reduction, investment in human capital, global openness, and a host of other good ideas are completely complementary to a policy in which corporate excess and massive income growth at the very top are reined in, but you’d never suspect that from reading these articles. I don’t know what the average reader might suspect after reading Chait’s piece. As Kevin Drum notes, the most damning passage in the whole story is this:
Over the last quarter century, the portion of the national income accruing to the richest 1 percent of Americans has doubled. The share going to the richest one-tenth of 1 percent has tripled, and the share going to the richest one-hundredth of 1 percent has quadrupled.
Drum rightly points out that globalization cannot remotely explain such a trend, but that doesn’t stop Chait from noting that liberal policy wonks are uncomfortable with free trade, a state of affairs which isn’t novel and which fails to fit in with the story he’s trying to tell.
The problem is, everyone is trying to come to one story line, one explanation, one easy sound bite, but economics defies such things. Massive inequality between the very top and everyone else is a problem, and probably a power problem, and should be addressed. Quite apart from that, there are pains in the labor force due to technological changes and trade-related dislocations, but fixing corporate greed isn’t going to solve that difficulty, and restricting trade won’t either.
What would? Sadly, there’s not a one word answer. Power? Sure, that’s part of it. So is better fiscal policy. So is a stronger safety net. So is massive investment in public education. So is openness to foreign trade and immigration. The list goes on, and it’s not sexy and it doesn’t make for compelling journalism. But that shouldn’t matter, should it?