Angus Deaton on the Under-Discussed Driver of Inequality in America: "It's Easier for Rent-Seekers to Affect Policy Here Than In Much of Europe"
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Angus Deaton on the Under-Discussed Driver of Inequality in America: "It's Easier for Rent-Seekers to Affect Policy Here Than In Much of Europe": In December, the United Nations' special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, embarked on a coast-to-coast tour of the United States. Alston's fact-finding mission, conducted at the invitation of the federal government, resulted in a grim report that declared the US "the world champion of extreme inequality" and highlighted the vast inequities that plague American society: The US is one of the world's wealthiest countries, yet 40 million of its inhabitants live in poverty, its infant mortality rates are the highest among developed nations, and Americans lead "shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy." The US also has the lowest rate of social mobility of any rich country, rapidly turning the American Dream—its national ethos—to "an American illusion."
Rising inequality has been the focus of countless articles, books and debates in recent years, as more and more empirical studies show that in the decades since 1980, income gains have gone overwhelmingly to the top 1 percent and 0.1 percent. Much of the debate, however, is concerned with the implications of inequality: Does rising inequality negatively affect economic growth? Does it undermine democracy? Did it contribute to the rise of populist politics in America and around the developed world?
Those, says Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, are the wrong questions to ask if we wish to understand inequality. In fact, he suggested in a recent piece for Project Syndicate, it's possible that the term "inequality" itself might be ill-fitting. A better term might be "unfairness": Inequality, he argued, is the consequence of economic, political, and social processes—some good, some bad, and some very bad. The key to addressing its rapid increase is to address the processes that can be deemed "unfair."
Examples are plenty. In his piece, Deaton focuses on several processes and policies that have allowed the rich to get richer while holding down middle- and working-class wages. Among them: rising health care costs, market consolidation, diminishing labor power, and corporations' political power. These processes do not stem from "unstoppable processes" like technology or globalization, argues Deaton, but are the result of rent-seeking.
Deaton, the recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economics, is one of the world's foremost experts on inequality. The groundbreaking research on US mortality rates he conducted together with Anne Case revealed an increase in midlife mortality rates among white non-Hispanic Americans, led by death related to drugs, alcohol and suicide—what they called "deaths of despair."
To better understand the connection between inequality and rent-seeking in America, we spoke with Deaton, a Senior Scholar and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of Economics and International Affairs Emeritus at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Economics Department at Princeton University. In his interview with ProMarket, Deaton discussed the connection of rent-seeking and monopolization to rising inequality, and explained why he believes it's easier for rent-seekers to influence policy in the US than in Europe. ...[continue]...
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