How is Inequality Holding Back the Recovery?

By Mike Konczal |

Is inequality holding back our weak recovery? Joe Stiglitz argues it is, while Paul Krugman argues it is not. John Judis summarizes the debate at The New RepublicI want to rephrase the question and focus specifically on the two most relevant policy points.

Taxes: Stiglitz argues, “[T]he weakness of the middle class is holding back tax receipts, especially because those at the top are so adroit in avoiding taxes and in getting Washington to give them tax breaks.” 
Right now our federal government’s tax structure is progressive, while state and local taxes are regressive. Meanwhile, the federal government can borrow at cheap rates and run a large deficit without a problem, while state budgets are constrained and need to be balanced. As a result, large cuts and layoffs at the state and local level have counteracted much of the federal government’s stimulus that comes from running a larger deficit. Indeed, Stiglitz’s point that inequality makes it harder to fund education is a real life battle: we are currently seeing education funding by state and local governments collapsing in real-time.
Here’s a chart on how regressive state and local taxes are from the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy:

When it comes to state and local taxes, the top 1 percent pays 6.4 percent, the middle 20 percent pays 9.7, while the poorest 20 percent of families pay 10.9 percent. This isn’t counting user fees, though a CEO with 300 times the income of a worker probably doesn’t get 300 times as many drivers’ licenses.
So, all things being equal, less inequality would mean less revenue for the federal government and more for state and local governments. Since a good plan for boosting demand would entail the federal government collecting less revenue (an extension of the payroll tax cut would have boosted demand) and state and local governments collecting more revenue and thus facing less austerity, less inequality would net provide more stimulus. I doubt it would matter that much, though it’s an empirical matter on just how much it would provide.
Spending: The other debate has to do with the marginal propensity to consume. Evidence does find the rich are less likely to spend money on consumption than everyone else, and in a liquidity trap this matters. Steve Waldman at Interfluidity has a larger theory on why it has mattered over the past decades, but I want to focus on the complicating, narrow issue of wealth inequality.
A graph by Amir Sufi, using Federal Reserve data, shows a collapse in the median net worth of households, and his research and others finds that this is a driver of the collapse in demand:

Meanwhile, precautionary savings are still a problem.
So, all things being equal, what happens if we decrease inequality in a balance-sheet recession? I see two changes running in opposite directions. You could see an increase in spending by the median household, as they have a higher propensity to spend, plus more income could relieve their balance-sheet constraints. However, if more middle-class households have more of the country’s income, they may save it even more aggressively; this would amplify the Paradox of Thrift and make the recession worse in the short term. It’s not clear which of these effects would dominate over the other.
One way to deal with this is to boost net wealth while keeping incomes consistent, via debt forgiveness or reform our legal mechanisms like bankruptcy so they can handle allocating these losses, though that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.
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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.