Economic myths that destroy our society and democracy

29 October, 2012 at 17:40 | Posted in Economics, Politics & Society | 1 Comment

The Romney campaign has defended inequality or brushed it aside. To do so, it has employed a handful of economic myths. Here are a few of the most important:

(1) America is a land of opportunity. While rags-to-riches stories still grip our imagination, the fact of the matter is that the life chances of a young American are more dependent on the income and wealth of his parents than in any of the other advanced countries for which there is data. There is less upward mobility — and less downward mobility from the top — even than in Europe, and we’re not just talking about Scandinavia.

(2) Trickle-down economics works (a k a “a rising tide lifts all boats”). This idea suggests that further enriching the wealthy will make us all better off. America’s recent economic history shows the patent falsehood of this notion. The top has done very well. But median American incomes are lower than they were a decade and a half ago. Various groups — men and those without a college education — have fared even worse. Median income of a full-time male worker, for instance, is lower than it was four decades ago.

(3) The rich are the “job creators,” so giving them more money leads to more and better jobs. This is really a subset of Myth 2. But Romney’s own private sector history gives it the lie. As we all know from the discussion of Bain Capital and other equity firms, many made their money not by creating jobs in America but by “restructuring,” “downsizing” and moving jobs abroad, often using debt to bleed the companies of money needed for investment, and using the money to enrich themselves. But more generally, the rich are not the source of transformative innovations. Many, if not most of the crucial innovations in recent decades, from medicine to the Internet, have been based in large measure on government-financed research and development. The rich take their money where the returns are highest, and right now many see those high returns in emerging markets. It’s not a surprise that Romney’s trust fund invested in China, but it’s hard to see how giving the rich more money — through more latitude to escape taxation, either through low taxes in the United States or Cayman Islands hide-aways — leads to a stronger American economy.

(4) The cost of reducing inequality is so great that, as much as idealists would like to do so, we would be killing the goose that lays the golden egg. In fact, the engine of our economic growth is the middle class. Inequality weakens aggregate demand, because those at the middle and bottom have to spend all or almost all of what that they get, while those at the top don’t. The concentration of wealth in recent decades led to bubbles and instability, as the Fed tried to offset the effects of weak demand arising from our inequality by low interest rates and lax regulation. The irony is that the tax cuts for capital gains and dividends that were supposed to spur investment by the wealthy alleged job creators didn’t do so, even with record low interest rates: private sector job creation under Bush was dismal. Mainstream economic institutions like the International Monetary Fund now recognize the connection between inequality and a weak economy. To argue the contrary is a self-serving idea being promoted by the very wealthy.

(5) Markets are self-regulating and efficient, and any governmental interference with markets is a mistake. The 2008 crisis should have cured everyone of this fallacy, but anyone with a sense of history would realize that capitalism has been plagued with booms and busts since its origin. The only period in our history in which financial markets did not suffer from excesses was the period after the Great Depression, in which we put in place strong regulations that worked. It’s worth noting that we grew much faster, and more stably, in the decades after World War II than in the period after 1980, when we started stripping away the regulations. And in the former period we grew together, in contrast to the latter, when we grew apart.

As I have explained in detail elsewhere, the cost of these myths goes far beyond the damage to our economy, now and in the future. The fabric of our society and democracy is suffering.

Joseph Stiglitz


1 Comment

  1. It is possible to go further than Stiglitz.
    Economics is a system of ad hocery based on a false premise, it exists only within a stringent internal logic. At best it could be said to describe a set of structured human behaviors, it could also be called a system of controlling and structuring human behavior. Thus “free market” is an oxymoron.
    Economics may try to relate their findings to thermodynamics in attempts to make their field a “science”, but thermodynamics is just statistics, and you’ll find thermodynamics pretty much everywhere.

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