The Rules are What Matter for Inequality: Our New Report

By Mike Konczal |



I’m very excited to announce the release of “Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy” (pdf report), Roosevelt Institute’s new inequality agenda report by Joe Stiglitz. I’m thrilled to be one of the co-authors, as I think this report really tells a compelling story about inequality and the challenges the economy faces.

Recently there’s been a lot of discussion about a “new” conventional wisdom (“a force to be reckoned with” according to one observer), one in which choices about the rules of the economy are a major driver of the outcomes we see. This is in contrast to the normal narrative about inequality we hear, one in which globalization, technology, or individual choices are the only important parts. I like to think this report is a major advancement in this discussion, bringing together the best recent research on this topic.

As we argue, inequality is not inevitable: it is a choice that we’ve made with the rules that structure our economy. Over the past 35 years, the rules, or the regulatory, legal and institutional frameworks, that make up the economy and condition the market have changed. These rules are a major driver of the income distribution we see, including runaway top incomes and weak or precarious income growth for most others. Crucially, however, these changes in the rules have not made our economy better off than we would be otherwise; in many cases we are weaker for these changes. We also now know that “deregulation” is, in fact, “reregulation”—that is, a new set of rules for governing the economy that favor a specific set of actors, and that there’s no way out of these difficult choices. But what were these changes?

Financial deregulation exploded both the size of finance and its incomes, roughly doubling the share of finance in the top 1 percent. However, finance grew as a result of intermediating credit in a “shadow banking” sector, which led to disastrous results. It also grew from asset management, a field in which pay is often determined by luck and by fees driven by the increasing prevalence of opaque alternative investment vehicles like hedge funds. For all the resources it uses, finance is no more efficient than it was a century ago.

Corporate governance also radically changed during this period, led by public policy decisions. CEO pay fundamentally shifted toward a high pay model in the 1980s. The shareholder revolution also changed the nature of investment. We now see finance acting as a mechanism for getting money out of firms rather than into them; similarly, private firms are investing more than public firms. CEOs regularly use buybacks to hit earnings targets and say they’d rather hit accounting goals than invest long-term, indicating that short-termism is now a serious problem for investment and its positive spillovers.

High marginal tax rates were cut, but there’s no evidence that the high-end marginal tax rate has any effect on growth; cutting it does, however, raise the share of income the top 1 percent takes home. Low taxes don’t just make the equalizing effects of taxes weaker; they also mean that CEOs and other executives in the top 1 percent have more of an incentive to bargain aggressively with boards or seek opportunities for extracting rents, all zero-sum games for the economy. Lowering capital taxes showed no impact on higher investment, but a positive effect on increased capital payouts; capital income growth is one of the main drivers of inequality during this time period.

During this time, the Federal Reserve’s focus moved toward low and stable inflation at the cost of higher unemployment. Unemployment from weak Federal Reserve action rises the most for low-skilled and minority workers. Inequality generally doesn’t come down unless unemployment is below 6 percent, and this has become less of a priority.

The rules changed, or were not updated, for the labor market as well. Decreasing unionization has taken a toll on workers’ wages. Men’s inequality, in particular, has risen due to collapsing unionization rates. Women’s inequality has suffered due to a falling minimum wage, which went from 54 percent of the average hourly wage in the late 1960s to just 35 percent now. Labor market protections and institutions that give workers voice and power, in general, have not been updated for a new world of service and care work.

Though not an effective driver of lower crime rates, a dramatic turn toward mass and punitive incarceration has reduced the employment prospects for millions of Americans, especially people of color. In particular, there’s a dense web of discriminatory codes for those with a record, which pushes them toward second-class citizenship. One estimate finds 38,000 such punitive statutes, with most of them related to employment and having no end date.

Our institutions and rules haven’t been updated to fully facilitate women’s ability to participate in the labor force. As a result of gender discrimination in the workplace, lack of paid sick and family leave, and the unavailability of affordable child care, women’s participation in the U.S. labor force has declined over the past 15 years, while it increased in most other OECD countries.

Many people agree inequality is a challenge, but would say that this is all driven by technology and globalization. We discuss this at length in the report, but we don’t find these traditional stories either convincing, in the case of technology, or sufficient, in the case of globalization. Both of these forces are playing out, in quite similar ways, in other advanced countries, whose growth of inequality nowhere mirrors our own. Technology and globalization don’t fall from the sky, but instead are determined in important ways by rules and institutions. This is especially important in the era of free trade agreements, which are really managed trade agreements. These agreements are less about trade and more about the regulatory environment corporations face.

But rules matter even in these straightforward stories about supply and demand for labor. Advancements in search theory tell us that supply and demand, rather than strictly determining wages, instead place boundaries or endzones on where wages can go. What determines where wages fall within those boundaries is a whole host of economic rules, including bargaining power, institutions, and social conventions. Even in the strong version of these arguments, the rules matter.

This report describes what has happened, going far deeper than this summary here. It also has a policy agenda focused on both taming the top and growing the rest of the economy. Some may emphasize some pieces more than others; but no matter what this argument about the rules is what is missing in the current debates over the economy. I hope you get a chance to check out the report!

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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.