In his speech on inequality earlier this month President Obama proclaimed that the government could not be a bystander in the effort to reduce inequality, which he described as the defining moral issue of our time. This left millions convinced that Obama would do nothing to lessen inequality.
The problem is that President Obama wants the public to believe that inequality is something that just happened. It turns out that the forces of technology, globalization, and whatever else simply made some people very rich and left others working for low wages or out of work altogether. The president and other like-minded people feel a moral compulsion to reverse the resulting inequality. This story is 180 degrees at odds with the reality. Inequality did not just happen, it was deliberately engineered through a whole range of policies intended to redistribute income upward.
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Trade is probably the best place to start just because it is so obvious. Trade deals like NAFTA were quite explicitly designed to place our manufacturing workers in direct competition with the lowest paid workers in the world. The text was written after consulting with top executives at major companies like General Electric. Our negotiators asked these executives what changes in Mexico’s law would make it easier for them to set up factories in Mexico. The text was written accordingly.
When we saw factory workers losing their jobs to imports from Mexico and other developing countries, this was not an accident. In economic theory, the gains from these trade deals are the result of getting lower priced products due to lower cost labor. The loss of jobs in the United States and the downward pressure on the jobs that remain is a predicted outcome of the deal.
There is nothing about the globalization process that necessitated this result. Doctors work for much less money in Mexico and elsewhere in the developing world than in the United States. In fact, they work for much less money in Europe and Canada than in the United States. If we had structured the trade deals to facilitate the entry of qualified foreign doctors into the country it would have placed downward pressure on the wages of doctors (many of whom are in the top one percent of the income distribution), while saving consumers tens of billions a year in health care costs.
In other words, the government quite deliberately structured our trade to put downward pressure on the wages of much of the labor force, while protecting doctors and other highly paid professionals from similar competition. Trade is just one of the many ways in which the government has redistributed income upward over the last three decades.
The subsidy for too big to fail banks, which makes the Wall Street crew incredibly rich, is another way that the government redistributes money to the top. Bloomberg estimated the size of this annual subsidy for the Wall Street gang at $80 billion a year, more than the government spends on food stamps.
The longer and stronger patent protection the government has given pharmaceutical companies is another way that money goes from the rest of us to the rich. The annual size of patent rents in the drug industry is currently in the neighborhood of $270 billion, more than three times as much as the government spends on food stamps.
And the macroeconomic policy run by the government has also worsened inequality. Budgets are crafted by politicians, not the gods or nature. The decision not to run a more stimulatory policy to reduce unemployment is every bit as much a conscious act as would be the decision to try to bring the economy to full employment with further stimulus.
In other words, Congress and the president have decided to craft budgets that lead to tens of millions of people being unemployed or underemployed. As Jared Bernstein and I point out in our new book, high levels of unemployment put downward pressure on workers’ wages, especially those in the bottom third of the labor force. This means we have a federal budget that limits growth and employment in a way that redistributes income upwards.
There is a much longer list of ways in which the government has acted to redistribute income upwards over the last three decades. I have a fuller discussion in my book, The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive.
But the key point is that inequality didn’t just happen, it was the result of government policy. That is why people who actually want to see inequality reduced, and for poor and middle class to share in the benefits from growth, are not likely to be very happy about President Obama’s speech on the topic. His comment about the government being a bystander ignores the real source of the problem. Therefore it is not likely that he will come up with much by way of real solutions.