Paying the Piper

| Fri Oct. 10, 2008 1:36 PM EDT

PAYING THE PIPER....Matt Yglesias says, sure, people were using their homes as ATM machines during the housing bubble, but it's not as if our political leaders were raising any red flags about it at the time. In fact, just the opposite:

Meanwhile, the broad conservative movement spent a lot of time trying to shout down anyone who worried about rising inequality or stagnant wages by pointing out that the trends looked better if you only examined consumption. In other words, if you ignored the fact that people were maintaining consumption growth by piling on more debt, things looked great! And yet, now somehow things don't look so great....

Obviously, the mere fact that conservative politicians, hacks, and operatives were egging this trend on didn't force anyone to accumulate enormous debts. Plenty of people didn't do so. But the underlying ill here is economic policies that sought to substitute an asset price bubble and innovative credit products for real, broadly-based prosperity.

This deserves a much longer treatment, which I'm not going to attempt right now either. But someone ought to. We usually argue about rising income inequality in moral terms, but there's a practical side to it too: when all the economic growth a country produces goes to a very small class of rich people, stupid things happen. The rich can't possibly consume enough to spend all this money, so they start casting around for something, anything, to do with all the cash they have sloshing around. And since, in an ever more unequal economy that nonetheless preaches ever rising living standards, the poor need payday loans to keep up and the stagnating middle class needs HELOCs, that's where their money goes. It still gets spent, eventually, on things like cars and food and new furniture, because that's what middle class people mostly spend their money on, but instead of being spent directly by people who are earning it, it gets funneled downward to them via increased debt and financial legerdemain that extracts more and more money upward from poor to rich with each cycle.

That's not sustainable. Median income growth produces not just growth, but stable growth for everyone, the rich included. Top end growth, almost by definition, produces unstable, unsustainable growth. Modern economies are driven by consumer spending, and if you want consumer spending to increase consistently you have to increase consumer income. All the financial wizardry in the world will never change that.

Social justice aside, that's why the single most important financial statistic for any modern economy is real median income growth. If you have it, you're in pretty good shape no matter what else is going on. If you don't, you're a banana republic. Guess which one we've become?

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