Inequality and Crisis

Michael Stephens | October 14, 2011

Nouriel Roubini argues at Project Syndicate that widening inequality lends itself to both economic and political instability.  In his latest policy brief, “Waiting for the Next Crash,” Randall Wray connects some of these same dots, tying the rise of “financialization” and soaring household debt levels to stagnating median incomes in the US:

…as finance metastasized, the “real” economy was withering—with the latter phenomenon feeding into the former. High inequality and stagnant wage growth tends to promote “living beyond one’s means,” as consumers try to keep up with the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Combine this with lax regulation and supervision of banking, and you have a debt-fueled consumption boom. Add a fraud-fueled real estate boom, and you have the fragile financial environment that made the [global financial crisis] possible.

Partly inspired by the work of Hyman Minsky (the Minsky Archives here at the Levy Institute, incidentally, are in the process of being digitized), Wray recommends a set of policy changes that are aimed at righting this imbalance between finance and the “real” economy.  These include restructuring (shrinking) and re-regulating (with strict limits on securitization) the financial sector, and an “employer of last resort” policy that would offer a guaranteed job to everyone willing and able to work (federally funded, with decentralized administration).  The ELR would not just be aimed at addressing the catastrophic unemployment problems associated with a cyclical downturn like the one we’re in now, but at creating a force pushing toward full employment at all phases of the business cycle.  (You can read the brief here.)

Update:  Read the IMF’s recent contribution to the inequality debate here and here.


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