The other day, I reported that Fed chair Janet Yellen said a great deal about existing levels of economic inequality at the Conference on Economic Opportunity and Inequality in Boston.
Neil Irwin [ht: ra] reminds us there’s a great deal Yellen didn’t say. She didn’t, for example, say anything about the aspects of the inequality puzzle that have a close tie-in to the policies of the Federal Reserve.
there is a growing body of evidence — far from proven, but certainly gaining traction — that income inequality could be a significant force behind disappointing overall economic growth over the last 15 years.
The story goes like this: The wealthy tend to save a large proportion of their income, whereas middle and lower-income people spend almost all of what they earn. Because a rising share of income is going to the wealthy, spending — and hence aggregate demand — is rising more slowly than it would if there were more even distribution of income. Skyrocketing debt levels papered over this disconnect in the mid-2000s, but now we could be feeling its effect.
If true, this would help account for why the economy has notched mediocre growth since the turn of the century, with the exception being a brief period of the housing bubble.
Yellen also didn’t have anything to say about the economic opportunities that have allowed the gains of a tiny minority at the top to be captured in the first place. Top 1 percent incomes and corporate profits have to come from somewhere. They’re created during the course of producing goods and services—in the United States and around the world. But the workers who did all that producing only get to keep part of the value they create, in the form of wages and salaries; the rest—call it the surplus—is appropriated by their employers, who keep some in the form of corporate profits and then distribute the rest to their owners and top managers. Those employers, owners, and managers spend some of that income and plow the rest into the ownership of various forms of wealth. It’s no wonder, then, that—given the economic opportunities they’ve been provided within current economic arrangements—the distribution of both income and wealth has been getting more and more unequal.
That’s what Janet Yellen didn’t say.