Guest Post: Heather Boushey on Inequality and Growth

By Mike Konczal |

Mike here: Special guest post by Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, responding to a recent citation of her work with Adam Hersh on inequality and growth (work we discussed here). The launch of this post was delayed on my end as a result of Sandy-induced work/email chaos. Hope you check it out, as well as their excellent report that is discussed within.

Inequality does appear to affect economic growth

by Heather Boushey

It is now a well-known fact that the United States has the highest levels of inequality among developed countries. Increasingly, the economics profession is questioning how this affects our economy, not only in terms of what it means for those at the bottom of the income distribution, but in terms of how high inequality affects economic growth and stability.

The New York Times recently published a thoughtful piece on the relationship of rising U.S. inequality to long-term economic growth. In the wake of that article, they published a Room for Debate online forum on this topic and Scott Winship, a scholar a the Brooking’s Institution was among those participating. Mr. Winship cites our report on the topic to discuss what he argues is inadequate evidence linking inequality and growth.

We are grateful that Mr. Winship acknowledges CAP’s central role in this debate, but grossly mischaracterizes our conclusions. The quote he pulled from our report gives the false impression that our research supports the conclusionthat inequality is not a problem for economic growth.

Our argument is that we need to look specifically at the channels through which inequality affects economic growth, specifically in the U.S. context. For example, there is evidence that documents how the rich don’t spend as much of their income as the non-rich. If inequality keeps rising and the rich pull in a larger and larger share of national income, this stunts demand, the lifeblood of the economy.

Another mechanism is through entrepreneurship, which is often portrayed as the dynamic force in a capitalist economy. Yet, most entrepreneurs come from the middle class. The middle class provides both the economic security and access to education and credit that entrepreneursneed.

If inequality is due to the top pulling far away from the rest of the economy,which creates a very wealthy elite, this is often associated with a well-known economic phenomenon of “rent-seeking.” The wealthy will tend to use their outsized resources to garner a bigger piece of the pie, rather than on investments that will increase productivity and make the whole pie bigger. And, there is growing evidence that this is exactly what is happening to our economy, threatening long-term growth. For example, economists have been finding that as money has flowed into the financial sector, that industry has increasingly used its resources to promote policies that benefit itself only.

In opposition to Mr. Winship’s claim, the preponderance of evidence does supports the conclusion that inequality can hamper economic growth. We conducted a thorough review of the literature and in the quote he took, we were highlighting methodological limitations in a specific class of empirical studies. We also pointed out that cross-country panel data studies look at reduced form equations for growth and we argue that we should be thinking instead about a structural model.

Others have found our report to be data-driven. Jim Tankersley, journalist with the National Journal encouraged his readers to consume the report “in its entirety,” describing is as a “The bulk of Boushey and Hersh’s sources aren’t partisan in any way – just detailed, data-driven analysis from top economists.” This blog called it “the best up-to-date arguments that progressives discussing inequality should understand inside out.” And in a lengthy discussion on the subject last month by Jared Bernstein, former chief economist to the vice president, our work was used to frame a summary of the latest research on this topic. 

We are typically pleased to have our research cited in the paper of record, the New York Times. However, it is no fun to have our work grossly misrepresented.


Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.