Inequality should be at the heart of the economic debate

Today the eminent US economist Larry Summers writes in the FT. His subject is the US economy, but the problem he addresses affects most developed economies in some shape or form, and the British economy quite closely. Unfortunately, so many economists of his generation, an obsession with short-term macroeconomic theory means that he doesn’t seem to get the big picture. Inequality lies at the heart of our economic malaise.

This debate is being conducted by academic economists in their own language, but it matters to all of us. I will summarise. Mr Summers’s starting proposition is that the US economy is suffering from “secular stagnation”. What this means is that the economy is stuck in a pattern of slow growth that does not fulfil the potential that population growth and advances in productivity should give it. This certainly seems to be true, though I think that the ability of developed economies to grow consistently at 2% per annum, the “trend rate”, must be subjected to critical analysis, rather than simply assuming it can be continued indefinitely because it has been achieved in the second half of the 2oth Century.

Mr Summers then says that there are three basic ways of trying to tackle this. First is “supply side” reforms; this means trying to fix fundamental bottlenecks in the economy, such as education. Worthy though he says these ideas are, the problem with this is that it does not fix a lack of demand in the economy; there is no point in producing more if nobody buys. This line of reasoning is very much behind the Keynesian critique of austerity economics. While there is a certain logic to it, it sounds too much like saying these problems are too much effort to fix, so let’s try something else – which is a road to nowhere. It used to be that economists blamed politicians for being too short-termist; now it is the other way around.

The second strategy is to loosen monetary policy. The problem is that monetary policy in the US (and the UK) is technically very loose as it is. I say technically, because in some respects monetary policy is quite tight in fact (because banks are reducing their balance sheets) – though there is little the authorities can do about it. Further loosening of policy (as advocated by the likes of Paul Krugman, for example) will simply inflate bubbles and get us back to the fix we found ourselves in 2007. He is surely right here – though I would add that I think that monetary policy is massively over-rated as a policy instrument by conventional economists anyway.

The third strategy is to use government spending to keep up demand, preferably by spending on infrastructure, that will be of long term benefit to the economy. He also says that governments should try to persuade the private sector to spend more, by which he mainly seems to mean the corporate sector to invest more.

The problem I have with this is its superficiality. The “secular stagnation” problem Mr Summers describes is a serious malfunction of the economic machine. This can be seen most clearly if you follow Mr Krugman’s logic. He says that the way out is to reduce interest rates to the point at which investment gets stimulated. And since interest rates are currently low, that means that we should have an effectively negative rate by stoking up inflation a bit. In other words, he is saying that the problem is that profitable investment is impossible, so we need to encourage investment that is marginally unprofitable. How on earth can an economy grow on that formula?

Surely we need to spend a bit more time getting to the bottom of exactly why are in this fix, and then trying to direct public policy to fixing it. Here I follow another prominent US economist: Joseph Stiglitz (or I think I do). The culprit for lack of demand in the economy is quite clear: it is lack of investment, especially from the private sector. You can make up for this shortage of investment by running government deficits, but you are in trouble if this is more than a temporary measure. The problem is that there is systemic reason for the shortage of private sector investment, which running government deficits does nothing to fix. It is rising inequality. Big surpluses are accumulating in some parts of the economy: in the personal wealth of the very rich, and on company balance sheets. This is not being spent on investment, but being held in cash to spend later, or chasing a merry go round of assets, real estate and shares, whose overall quantity is not expanding.

There are two problems here: inequality and the fact that savings are not translated into proper investments. The first of theses is the more fundamental. The Economist published an interesting article on the subject, reviewing the work of a French economist, Thomas Piketty. They point out that the inequality problem has been with us before: in the period up to 1914, giving rise to the critique of Karl Marx, amongst others. Mr Piketty thinks that developed economies are reverting to the 19th century type. The problem is slowing population growth, combined with technology that makes it easy to substitute people with machines. If he is right, the problem is not about to go away. It is the central political question of our time.

So what are the answers? First of all we need to tax the rich harder. Given that so much wealth ends up in slippery multinational networks, this means international cooperation. It also means rebalancing industry and jobs so that we are less over-supplied with unskilled workers. The pressure on the finance industry, especially investment banking, needs to be maintained. All this means reversing the conventional wisdom of the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher years – but not a recreation of the failed policies that preceded them.

This is an agenda of the left. It will be vigorously opposed by the right. Perhaps at long last the consensus that has ruled developed world politics will break up. But economists like Mr Summers do us no favours by concentrating on palliatives rather than solutions.