Consequences of Economic Downturn -- Part III: More of the rich getting richer?
April 14, 2011
Martha A. Starr
Since the early days of the financial crisis, claims have been made that it was somehow caused by rising inequality. A big dose of suggestive evidence comes from statistics on income inequality: as the chart shows, on the eve of the 2008 crisis, inequality had risen to levels not seen since 1929.
Data for the U.S. from the Top Incomes database (accessed 4/12/2011)
But how exactly are inequality and financial crisis related? The chapter in Consequences of Economic Downturn by Jon Wisman and Bart Baker of American University takes on this question, identifying three dynamics implicated in both the 1929 stock market crash and the 2008 financial crisis. First, both crises came after years when real incomes rose for households at the high end of the income distribution, but stayed flat or slipped for others. Drawing on Veblen’s ideas about conspicuous consumption, they argue that this led average people to rely increasingly on borrowing to “keep up with the Joneses”, building ever more risk into the financial system. Second, with the consumption of the rich already very high (how many Audis, ski vacations, homes in the Hamptons, etc., does one actually need?), they tended to channel their rising incomes and wealth into financial investments, which kept interest rates low and encouraged the creation of new credit instruments with poorly-understood risk properties. Third, with rising economic clout, the rich gained increasing control over politics and ideology, shifting the government and public into a mentality of laissez les bons temps rouler. They conclude that, because these dynamics reflect structural economic problems –- spending levels above purchasing power, loanable funds above productive investment opportunities – we can’t expect measures to repair flaws in the financial system alone to put the economy back on secure footing.
While there is much to be said for this argument, I have small nagging doubts about it. For one, as popular as the “keeping up with the Joneses” story is, careful empirical research shows that people tend to emulate relatively successful people in their own social segments, not so much the rich. Sure, one can argue that pervasive media influence has widened our perceived social circles, so that we increasingly understand ourselves as peers of Donald Trump. But most people's spending is concentrated in everyday things like the rent or mortgage, food, utilities, transportation, health insurance, etc., not silk ties and mobile champagne coolers. For another, data on household finances show that, in the years before the crisis, high-income households were accumulating non-financial assets (residential properties, business interests), not increasingly risky financial assets; rather, it was financial institutions that were gobbling up the MBSs, CDOs, etc. So as much as interested readers will find this paper rich and nuanced in its historical arguments, I’m not sure we’ve yet got the story fully nailed down.
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