This morning, we’re faced with the extraordinary spectacle of two left-of-center, Nobel Prize-winning economists stumbling all over themselves trying to make sense of the role of inequality in creating and sustaining the Second Great Depression.
Really?! Now, they may have missed the trend of growing inequality over the course of the past three decades. Still, with all the talk of obscene levels of inequality in the last five years and mainstream economists, even the best and the brightest, are still having a hard time formulating a theory about the impact of that inequality in producing the conditions for the crash of 2007-08 and sustaining the recovery that never was.
First, Joseph Stiglitz argued that “Inequality stifles, restrains and holds back our growth.” Then, Paul Krugman responded by telling us he’s not convinced “that this particular morality tale is right.”
It’s true, they agree that current economic conditions are, for that vast majority of people, pretty ugly. And that inequality distorts the political process, by allowing those on top to buy their favorite politicians and policies.
Both Stiglitz and Krugman also mention that growing inequality fosters financial crises, although from all that I’ve read neither has ever offered a theory of how that actually works.
So, their big disagreement is centered on the role of inequality (which, after a brief hiatus in 2009, is growing once again) in sustaining the current non-recovery, which I have come to refer to as the Second Great Depression. Basically, Stiglitz borrows from the radicals’ playbook and makes an underconsumption argument, which Krugman attempts to refute by invoking private savings rates and the idea that there can be full employment “based on purchases of yachts, luxury cars, and the services of personal trainers and celebrity chefs.”
Sure, but there isn’t. Not even close. And, according to all the projections I’ve seen, there won’t be for quite some time.
It is surely an embarrassment for mainstream economics that two of its best can barely even begin a serious discussion of the complex and contradictory effects of inequality on the pace and nature of growth since the financial crash of 2008. But, to give them credit, they’re still way out in front of their mainstream colleagues, who aren’t even attempting to make sense of the role inequality has played and continues to play in creating the Second Great Depression.