Janet Yellen gave a reasonable speech on inequality last week, and she barely managed to finish it before the right-wing went nuts.
It’s attracted the standard set of overall criticisms, like people asserting that low rates give banks increasingly “wide spreads” on lending — a claim made with no evidence, and without addressing that spreads might have fallen overall. One notes that Bernanke has also given similar inequality speeches (though the right also went off the deep end when it came to Bernanke), and Jonathan Chait notes how aggressive Greenspan was with discussing controversial policies to crickets on the right.
But I also just saw that Michael Strain has written a column arguing that by even “by focusing on income inequality [Yellen] has waded into politically choppy waters.” Putting the specifics of the speech to the side, it’s simply impossible to talk about the efficacy of monetary policy and full employment during the Great Recession without discussing inequality, or discussing economic issues where inequality is in the background.
Here are five inequality-related issues off the top of my head that are important in monetary policy and full employment. The arguments may or not be convincing (I’m not sure where I stand on some), but to rule these topics entirely out of bounds will just lead to a worse understanding of what the Federal Reserve needs to do.
The Not-Rich. The material conditions of the poorest and everyday Americans are an essential part of any story of inequality. If the poor are doing great, do we really care if the rich are doing even better? Yet in this recession everyday Americans are doing terribly, and it has macroeconomic consequences.
Between the end of the recession in 2009 and 2013, median wages fell an additional 5 percent. One element of monetary policy is changing the relative interest in saving, yet according to recent work by Zucman and Saez, 90 percent of Americans aren’t able to save any money right now. If that is the case, it’s that much harder to make monetary policy work.
Indeed, one effect of committing to low rates in the future is making it more attractive to invest where debt servicing is difficult. For example, through things like subprime auto loans, which are booming (and unregulated under Dodd-Frank because of auto-dealership Republicans). Meanwhile, policy tools that we know flatten low-end inequality between the 10 and 50 percentile — like the minimum wage, which has fallen in value — could potentially boost aggregate demand.
Expectations. The most influential theories about how monetary policy can work when we are at the zero lower bound, as we’ve been for the past several years, involve “expectations” of future inflation and wage growth.
One problem with changing people’s expectations of the future is that those expectations are closely linked to their experiences of the past. And if people’s strong expectations of the future are low or zero nominal growth in incomes because everything around them screams inequality, because income growth and inflation rates have been falling for decades, strongly worded statements and press releases from Janet Yellen are going to have less effect.
The Rich. The debate around secular stagnation is ongoing. Here’s the Vox explainer. Larry Summers recently argued that the term emphasizes “the difficulty of maintaining sufficient demand to permit normal levels of output.” Why is this so difficult? “[R]ising inequality, lower capital costs, slowing population growth, foreign reserve accumulation, and greater costs of financial intermediation.” There’s no sense in which you can try to understand the persistence of low interest rates and their effect on the recovery without considering growing inequality across the Western world.
Who Does the Economy Work For? To understand how well changes in the interest-sensitive components of investment might work, a major monetary channel, you need to have some idea of how the economy is evolving. And stories about how the economy works now are going to be tied to stories about inequality.
The Roosevelt Institute will have some exciting work by JW Mason on this soon, but if the economy is increasingly built around disgorging the cash to shareholders, we should question how this helps or impedes full output. What if low rates cause, say, the Olive Garden to focus less on building, investing, and hiring, and more on reworking its corporate structure so it can rent its buildings back from another corporate entity? Both are in theory interest-sensitive, but the first brings us closer to full output, and the second merely slices the pie a different way in order to give more to capital owners.
Alternatively, if you believe (dubious) stories about how the economy is experiencing trouble as a result of major shifts brought about by technology and low skills, then we have a different story about inequality and the weak recovery.
Inequality in Political and Market Power. We should also consider the political and economic power of industry, especially the financial sector. Regulations are an important component to keeping worries about financial instability in check, but a powerful financial sector makes regulations useless.
But let’s look at another issue: monetary policy’s influence on underwater mortgage financing, a major demand booster in the wake of a housing collapse. As the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found, the spread between primary and secondary rates increased during the Great Recession, especially into 2012 as HARP was revamped and more aggressive zero-bound policies were adopted. The Fed is, obviously, cautious about claiming pricing power from the banks, but it does look like the market power of finance was able to capture lower rates and keep demand lower than it needed to be. The share of the top 0.1 percent of earners working in finance doubled during the past 30 years, and it’s hard not to see that not being related to displays of market and political power like this.
These ideas haven’t had their tires kicked. This is a blog, after all. (As I noted, I’m not even sure if I find them all convincing.) They need to be modeled, debated, given some empirical handles, and so forth. But they are all stories that need to be addressed, and it’s impossible to do any of that if there’s massive outrage at even the suggestion that inequality matters.