Connecting the dots—or not

Posted: 13 May 2013 in Uncategorized
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Paul Krugman continues to have a hard time connecting the dots—for example, between inequality and macroeconomics. For him, there’s the macroeconomic dot and then there’s the inequality dot, and the two are separate: the former is “economics,” while the latter is “politics.” That’s what you get in the IS-LM world of which Krugman is so enamored.

Joseph Stiglitz, on the contrary, is in fact busy connecting the dots. He understands quite well that the existing macroeconomic models are fundamentally flawed, at least in part because they exclude the problems created by growing inequality.

Distribution matters as well – distribution among individuals, between households and firms, among households, and among firms. Traditionally, macroeconomics focused on certain aggregates, such as the average ratio of leverage to GDP. But that and other average numbers often don’t give a picture of the vulnerability of the economy.

In the case of the financial crisis, such numbers didn’t give us warning signs. Yet it was the fact that a large number of people at the bottom couldn’t make their debt payments that should have tipped us off that something was wrong.

And Stiglitz understands that another economic crisis may soon break out, this one connected to soaring student debt, which in turn is caused by the same trends of inequality that preceded the financial crisis of 2007-08.

Student debt also is a drag on the slow recovery that began in 2009. By dampening consumption, it hinders economic growth. It is also holding back recovery in real estate, the sector where the Great Recession started. . .

Those with huge debts are likely to be cautious before undertaking the additional burdens of a family. But even when they do, they will find it more difficult to get a mortgage. And if they do, it will be smaller, and the real estate recovery will consequently be weaker. . .

It’s a vicious cycle: lack of demand for housing contributes to a lack of jobs, which contributes to weak household formation, which contributes to a lack of demand for housing.

As bad as things are, they may get worse. With budgetary pressures mounting — along with demands for cutbacks in “discretionary domestic programs” (read: K-12 education subsidies, Pell Grants for poor kids to attend college, research money) — students and families are left to fend for themselves. College costs will continue to rise far faster than incomes. As has been repeatedly observed, all of the economic gains since the Great Recession have gone to the top 1 percent. . .

We now have a pay-to-play, winner-take-all game where the wealthiest are assured a spot, and the rest are compelled to take a gamble on huge debts, with no guarantee of a payoff.

There is simply no macroeconomic analysis worth its salt that doesn’t help us begin to make sense of the relationship between inequality and capitalist economic crises.

And unless and until economists begin to connect the dots, they’ll be caught unawares—once again—by the onset of the crisis and they’ll have little to offer—once again—about how to deal with it once it happens.

  1. Magpie says:

    To be fair with Paul Krugman, there are Marxists who have every bit as much difficulty linking the inequality dot and the macroeconomy dot.

    Without naming names, and if memory serves, John Quiggin once called them the “Austrian-Marxists”, or something like that.

  2. […] Connecting the Dots—or Not Paul Krugman continues to have a hard time connecting the dots—for example, between inequality and macroeconomics. […]

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