Growing inequality in the news; point of no return?

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued a report early this week that outlines factoids known to scholars of inequality for some time — that over the last 30 years the share of income captured by the top has grown at the expense of those in the middle or low-end of the income hierarchy.

After-tax incomes for the top 1% grew 265% over the roughly three decades from 1979-2007 while those with incomes in the bottom 20% of the distribution saw after-tax income rise a paltry 18% over roughly 30 years (or about half of 1% per year).

The top 1% now capture 17% of the nation’s income, more than double the 8% they captured back in 1979.  The bottom 80% of households (most of us) saw their share of income decline 2-3 percentage points over this period.  [CBO points out that part of this trend toward increasing inequality was the result of higher-income households capturing a higher share of wages in the market and part was government doing less than 3 decades ago to redistribute and even out this market-based inequality.]

While these factoids are known by some, what may be new is: 1) that general unrest and anger/frustration at this inequality is growing, as evidenced by the Occupy Wall Street protests; and 2) even mainstream believers of capitalism, like PIMCO bond-fund investment chief Mohamed El-Erian (also former manager of the Harvard endowment) or Harvard pre-eminent labor economist Larry Katz (former chief economist for the department of labor under Clinton) believe that we have drifted into economically deleterious levels.

Mohamed El-Erian, another pillar of the financial world … is sympathetic to aspects of the Occupy movement. He told me that the economic system needs to move toward “inclusive capitalism” and embrace broad-based job creation while curbing excessive inequality.

“You cannot be a good house in a rapidly deteriorating neighborhood,” he told me. “The credibility and the fair functioning of the neighborhood matter a great deal. Without that, the integrity of the capitalist system will weaken further.”

Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist, adds that some inequality is necessary to create incentives in a capitalist economy but that “too much inequality can harm the efficient operation of the economy.” In particular, he says, excessive inequality can have two perverse consequences: first, the very wealthy lobby for favors, contracts and bailouts that distort markets; and, second, growing inequality undermines the ability of the poorest to invest in their own education.

“These factors mean that high inequality can generate further high inequality and eventually poor economic growth,” Professor Katz said. [quoted from “Crony Capitalism Comes Home” by Nick Kristof, NYT Op-Ed 10/27/11]

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