This excerpt makes some important points about a number of topics this blog focuses on:
- why wealth and income concentration are not good for the economy;
- rent and rent-seeking behavior
- the extent to which the financial sector is absorbing the profits made by the productive sectors of our economy
I look forward to reading the book. I'll be curious to see whether Professor Stiglitz gets into what we can do via reforming our tax system to reduce the amount of rent that is available for private and corporate rent-seekers. Treat rent as our COMMON asset... Natural Public Revenue!! Don't leave it there for corporations to privatize.
It is no accident that the periods in which the broadest cross sections of Americans have reported higher net incomes — when inequality has been reduced, partly as a result of progressive taxation — have been the periods in which the U.S. economy has grown the fastest. It is likewise no accident that the current recession, like the Great Depression, was preceded by large increases in inequality. When too much money is concentrated at the top of society, spending by the average American is necessarily reduced — or at least it will be in the absence of some artificial prop. Moving money from the bottom to the top lowers consumption because higher-income individuals consume, as a fraction of their income, less than lower-income individuals do.
In our imaginations, it doesn’t always seem as if this is the case, because spending by the wealthy is so conspicuous. Just look at the color photographs in the back pages of the weekend Wall Street Journal of houses for sale. But the phenomenon makes sense when you do the math. Consider someone like Mitt Romney, whose income in 2010 was $21.7 million. Even if Romney chose to live a much more indulgent lifestyle, he would spend only a fraction of that sum in a typical year to support himself and his wife in their several homes. But take the same amount of money and divide it among 500 people — say, in the form of jobs paying $43,400 apiece — and you’ll find that almost all of the money gets spent.
The relationship is straightforward and ironclad: as more money becomes concentrated at the top, aggregate demand goes into a decline. Unless something else happens by way of intervention, total demand in the economy will be less than what the economy is capable of supplying — and that means that there will be growing unemployment, which will dampen demand even further. In the 1990s that “something else” was the tech bubble. In the first decade of the 21st century, it was the housing bubble. Today, the only recourse, amid deep recession, is government spending — which is exactly what those at the top are now hoping to curb.
The “Rent Seeking” Problem
Here I need to resort to a bit of economic jargon. The word “rent” was originally used, and still is, to describe what someone received for the use of a piece of his land — it’s the return obtained by virtue of ownership, and not because of anything one actually does or produces. This stands in contrast to “wages,” for example, which connotes compensation for the labor that workers provide. The term “rent” was eventually extended to include monopoly profits — the income that one receives simply from the control of a monopoly. In time, the meaning was expanded still further to include the returns on other kinds of ownership claims. If the government gave a company the exclusive right to import a certain amount of a certain good, such as sugar, then the extra return was called a “quota rent.” The acquisition of rights to mine or drill produces a form of rent. So does preferential tax treatment for special interests. In a broad sense, “rent seeking” defines many of the ways by which our current political process helps the rich at the expense of everyone else, including
- transfers and subsidies from the government,
- laws that make the marketplace less competitive,
- laws that allow C.E.O.’s to take a disproportionate share of corporate revenue (though Dodd-Frank has made matters better by requiring a non-binding shareholder vote on compensation at least once every three years), and
- laws that permit corporations to make profits as they degrade the environment.
The magnitude of “rent seeking” in our economy, while hard to quantify, is clearly enormous. Individuals and corporations that excel at rent seeking are handsomely rewarded. The financial industry, which now largely functions as a market in speculation rather than a tool for promoting true economic productivity, is the rent-seeking sector par excellence. Rent seeking goes beyond speculation. The financial sector also gets rents out of its domination of the means of payment — the exorbitant credit- and debit-card fees and also the less well-known fees charged to merchants and passed on, eventually, to consumers. The money it siphons from poor and middle-class Americans through predatory lending practices can be thought of as rents. In recent years, the financial sector has accounted for some 40 percent of all corporate profits. This does not mean that its social contribution sneaks into the plus column, or comes even close. The crisis showed how it could wreak havoc on the economy. In a rent-seeking economy such as ours has become, private returns and social returns are badly out of whack.
In their simplest form, rents are nothing more than re-distributions from one part of society to the rent seekers. Much of the inequality in our economy has been the result of rent seeking, because, to a significant degree, rent seeking re-distributes money from those at the bottom to those at the top.
But there is a broader economic consequence: the fight to acquire rents is at best a zero-sum activity. Rent seeking makes nothing grow. Efforts are directed toward getting a larger share of the pie rather than increasing the size of the pie. But it’s worse than that: rent seeking distorts resource allocations and makes the economy weaker. It is a centripetal force: the rewards of rent seeking become so outsize that more and more energy is directed toward it, at the expense of everything else. Countries rich in natural resources are infamous for rent-seeking activities. It’s far easier to get rich in these places by getting access to resources at favorable terms than by producing goods or services that benefit people and increase productivity. That’s why these economies have done so badly, in spite of their seeming wealth. It’s easy to scoff and say: We’re not Nigeria, we’re not Congo. But the rent-seeking dynamic is the same.
LVTfan here: Think what would happen if we SOCIALIZED rents, and substituted them as our revenue source for all the taxes we pay ... sales taxes, wage taxes, building taxes, excise taxes ...
Recall what Leona Helmsley told us: "WE don't pay taxes. The little people pay taxes." Think what a weight would be lifted off our economy if those taxes were taken off the produces of labor, and put onto Rent, in all its forms!