Yesterday, I came across an excerpt from a book written by economist Joseph Stiglitz, which touched upon many crucial points regarding the U.S. economy. I think it’s an important read since it helps explain the roots of the current rebellion taking place within the political system.
Americans aren’t angry because other Americans are fabulously wealthy. Americans are angry because the economy is intentionally rigged to benefit a small group of individuals known as “insiders.” They’re angry because rather than add value to society, these insiders parasitically take from society. Rent-seeking is what economists call their destructive behavior, and the public is fed up with it.
No one would be outraged if genuinely innovative entrepreneurs and creators were the ones cleaning up in the modern economy. Unfortunately, this is not the way things work. Indeed, it’s an unfortunate fact that a disturbingly large number of America’s so-called “economic winners” in 2016 are little more than corrupt, scheming hacks and political types unconscionably profiting from the ongoing destruction of the Republic. “The people” have finally started to wake up.
Now here are a few excerpts from Evonomics:
American inequality didn’t just happen. It was created. Market forces played a role, but it was not market forces alone. In a sense, that should be obvious: economic laws are universal, but our growing inequality— especially the amounts seized by the upper 1 percent—is a distinctly American “achievement.” That outsize inequality is not predestined offers reason for hope, but in reality it is likely to get worse. The forces that have been at play in creating these outcomes are self-reinforcing.
Addressing inequality is of necessity multifaceted—we have to rein in the excesses at the top, strengthen the middle, and help those at the bottom. Each goal requires a program of its own. But to construct such programs, we have to have a better understanding of what has given rise to each facet of this unusual inequality.
Inequality is the result of political forces as much as of economic ones. In a modern economy government sets and enforces the rules of the game—what is fair competition, and what actions are deemed anticompetitive and illegal, who gets what in the event of bankruptcy, when a debtor can’t pay all that he owes, what are fraudulent practices and forbidden. Government also gives away resources (both openly and less transparently) and, through taxes and social expenditures, modifies the distribution of income that emerges from the market, shaped as it is by technology and politics.
Indeed, a huge part of the problem centers around a two-tiered justice system in which the rich and powerful can get away with anything and everything without ever facing serious consequences. Not only does this incentivize elite theft, it destroys the very fabric of society itself.
For more on this angle, see: Elizabeth Warren Releases Blistering Report on Corporate Criminality – Singles Out SEC Uselessness.
Our political system has increasingly been working in ways that increase the inequality of outcomes and reduce equality of opportunity. This should not come as a surprise: we have a political system that gives inordinate power to those at the top, and they have used that power not only to limit the extent of redistribution but also to shape the rules of the game in their favor, and to extract from the public what can only be called large “gifts.” Economists have a name for these activities: they call them rent seeking, getting income not as a reward to creating wealth but by grabbing a larger share of the wealth that would otherwise have been produced without their effort. Those at the top have learned how to suck out money from the rest in ways that the rest are hardly aware of—that is their true innovation.
Indeed, some of the most important innovations in business in the last three decades have centered not on making the economy more efficient but on how better to ensure monopoly power or how better to circumvent government regulations intended to align social returns and private rewards.
Rent-seeking behavior is not just endemic in the resource rich countries of the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. It has also become endemic in modern economies, including our own. In those economies, it takes many forms, some of which are closely akin to those in the oil-rich countries: getting state assets (such as oil or minerals) at below fair-market prices.
Another form of rent seeking is the flip side: selling to government products at above market prices (noncompetitive procurement). The drug companies and military contractors excel in this form of rent seeking. Open government subsidies (as in agriculture) or hidden subsidies (trade restrictions that reduce competition or subsidies hidden in the tax system) are other ways of getting rents from the public.
By looking at those at the top of the wealth distribution, we can get a feel for the nature of this aspect of America’s inequality. Few are inventors who have reshaped technology, or scientists who have reshaped our understandings of the laws of nature. Think of Alan Turing, whose genius provided the mathematics underlying the modern computer. Or of Einstein. Or of the discoverers of the laser (in which Charles Townes played a central role) or John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley, the inventors of transistors. Or of Watson and Crick, who unraveled the mysteries of DNA, upon which rests so much of modern medicine. None of them, who made such large contributions to our well-being, are among those most rewarded by our economic system.
How’s that status quo working for ya?
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