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As inequality grows, so does the political influence of the rich

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SQUEEZING the top 1% ought to be the most natural thing in the world for politicians seeking to please the masses. Yet, with few exceptions, today’s populist insurgents are more concerned with immigration and sovereignty than with the top rate of income tax. This disconnect may be more than an oddity. It may be a sign of the corrupting influence of inequality on democracy.

You might reasonably suppose that the more democratic a country’s institutions, the less inequality it should support. Rising inequality means that resources are concentrated in the hands of a few; they should be ever more easily outvoted by the majority who are left with a shrinking share of national income.

Indeed, some social scientists think that historical expansions of the franchise came as governments sought credible ways to assure voters that resources would be distributed more equitably. Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that in the 19th century governments across the West faced the threat of socialist revolution. Mere promises of greater redistribution were insufficient to eliminate such threats; institutional guarantees were needed. Giving credible guarantees, they reckon, meant increasing the share of the population allowed to vote. Other researchers argue that anti-majoritarian institutions embedded within democratic systems, such as Britain’s House of Lords and America’s electoral college, were prized by elites not because they seemed likely to lead to better policies but because they served as a check on the egalitarian tendencies of the masses.

But studies of the relation between democracy and levels of inequality point in conflicting directions. Mr Acemoglu and Mr Robinson tackle the question in another paper, co-written with Suresh Naidu and Pascual Restrepo. They conclude that democracies raise more taxes than non-democracies do. But this does not translate reliably into lower levels of income inequality.

One possible reason for this disconnect is that people do not care much about inequality, or want their politicians to do anything about it. The results of surveys suggest otherwise, however. When asked by pollsters, more than two-thirds of Americans and Europeans express concern about current levels of inequality. Alternatively, the creaky wheels of Western democracies might have become too jammed to make progress on any issue of substance, whether inequality or some other persistent problem.

But this answer is also unsatisfying. The rich world has seen big policy shifts over the past decade. Last year America’s government managed to make a sweeping change to taxes—one that tilts the distribution of income even more in favour of the rich. And in a recent study of European politics, Derek Epp and Enrico Borghetto find that political agendas in Europe have become less focused on redistribution even as inequality has risen. Though both inequality and public concern about it are increasing, politicians seem less interested in grappling with the problem.

Mr Epp and Mr Borghetto think another possible explanation should be considered. Rather than straightforwardly increasing pressure on politicians to do something about skewed income distributions, they suggest, rising inequality might instead boost the power of the rich, thus enabling them to counter the popular will. Research in political science gives substance to the impression that America’s rich wield outsize influence. An examination of the political preferences of those with $40m or more in net worth by Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright found that they overwhelmingly favour cutting spending on major social-safety-net programmes. (The general public wants it increased.) They are also more politically engaged than typical Americans: much more likely to have regular personal contact with elected officials, for example, and to give money to political campaigns. An analysis of campaign donations by Lee Drutman found that fewer than 30,000 people account for a quarter of all national political donations from individuals and for more than 80% of the money raised by political parties.

The relation between concentrated wealth and the political power of the rich is scarcely limited to political spending, or to America. The rich have many means to shape public opinion: financing nominally apolitical think-tanks, for instance, or buying media outlets. Although their power may sometimes be used to influence the result of a particular vote, it is often deployed more subtly, to shape public narratives about which problems deserve attention. Mr Epp and Mr Borghetto analysed bills brought before the parliaments of nine European countries between 1941 and 2014. Rising inequality, they found, is associated with political agendas more focused on matters related to “social order”, such as crime and immigration. Issues such as economic justice are crowded out. They attribute this to the “negative agenda power” of the rich. As their wealth increases, they have a greater ability to press politicians to emphasise some topics rather than others.

A rising tide lifts all votes

The evidence that concentrated wealth contributes to concentrated power is troubling. It suggests that reducing inequality becomes less likely even as it becomes more urgent. It implies that a vicious cycle of rising inequality may be developing, with a loss of democratic accountability as a nasty side-effect. Some social scientists argue that this is, indeed, the way of things. In “The Great Leveler”, published last year, Walter Scheidel writes that, across human history, inequality inevitably rises until checked by disasters like wars or revolutions.

This is excessively pessimistic. The rich are powerful, but not all-powerful, or uniform in their determination to keep distributional policies off the agenda. And Western democracies still function. If political leaders tried it, they might well find that redistribution is a winner at the ballot box.

Sources cited in this article

“Why did the West extend the franchise?: democracy, inequality and growth in historical perspective”, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2000.

“Democracy, redistribution and inequality”, Daron Acemoglu, Suresh Naidu, Pascual Restrepo and James Robinson, Handbook of Income Distribution, 2015.

“Economic inequality and legislative agendas in Europe”, Derek Epp and Enrico Borghetto, 2018.

“Democracy and the policy preferences of wealthy Americans”, Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright, Perspectives on Politics, 2013.

“The political one percent of the one percent”, Lee Drutman, Sunlight Foundation, 2011.

 

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Japan still has great influence on global financial markets

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IT IS the summer of 1979 and Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the everyman-hero of John Updike’s series of novels, is running a car showroom in Brewer, Pennsylvania. There is a pervasive mood of decline. Local textile mills have closed. Gas prices are soaring. No one wants the traded-in, Detroit-made cars clogging the lot. Yet Rabbit is serene. His is a Toyota franchise. So his cars have the best mileage and lowest servicing costs. When you buy one, he tells his customers, you are turning your dollars into yen.

“Rabbit is Rich” evokes the time when America was first unnerved by the rise of a rival economic power. Japan had taken leadership from America in a succession of industries, including textiles, consumer electronics and steel. It was threatening to topple the car industry, too. Today Japan’s economic position is much reduced. It has lost its place as the world’s second-largest economy (and primary target of American trade hawks) to China. Yet in one regard, its sway still holds.

This week the board of the Bank of Japan (BoJ) voted to leave its monetary policy broadly unchanged. But leading up to its policy meeting, rumours that it might make a substantial change caused a few jitters in global bond markets. The anxiety was justified. A sudden change of tack by the BoJ would be felt far beyond Japan’s shores.

One reason is that Japan’s influence on global asset markets has kept growing as decades of the country’s surplus savings have piled up. Japan’s net foreign assets—what its residents own abroad minus what they owe to foreigners—have risen to around $3trn, or 60% of the country’s annual GDP (see top chart).

But it is also a consequence of very loose monetary policy. The BoJ has deployed an arsenal of special measures to battle Japan’s persistently low inflation. Its benchmark interest rate is negative (-0.1%). It is committed to purchasing ¥80trn ($715bn) of government bonds each year with the aim of keeping Japan’s ten-year bond yield around zero. And it is buying baskets of Japan’s leading stocks to the tune of ¥6trn a year.

Tokyo storm warning

These measures, once unorthodox but now familiar, have pushed Japan’s banks, insurance firms and ordinary savers into buying foreign stocks and bonds that offer better returns than they can get at home. Indeed, Japanese investors have loaded up on short-term foreign debt to enable them to buy even more. Holdings of foreign assets in Japan rose from 111% of GDP in 2010 to 185% in 2017 (see bottom chart). The impact of capital outflows is evident in currency markets. The yen is cheap. On The Economist’s Big Mac index, a gauge based on burger prices, it is the most undervalued of any major currency.

Investors from Japan have also kept a lid on bond yields in the rich world. They own almost a tenth of the sovereign bonds issued by France, for instance, and more than 15% of those issued by Australia and Sweden, according to analysts at J.P. Morgan. Japanese insurance companies own lots of corporate bonds in America, although this year the rising cost of hedging dollars has caused a switch into European corporate bonds. The value of Japan’s holdings of foreign equities has tripled since 2012. They now make up almost a fifth of its overseas assets.

What happens in Japan thus matters a great deal to an array of global asset prices. A meaningful shift in monetary policy would probably have a dramatic effect. It is not natural for Japan to be the cheapest place to buy a Big Mac, a latté or an iPad, says Kit Juckes of Société Générale. The yen would surge. A retreat from special measures by the BoJ would be a signal that the era of quantitative easing was truly ending. Broader market turbulence would be likely. Yet a corollary is that as long as the BoJ maintains its current policies—and it seems minded to do so for a while—it will continue to be a prop to global asset prices.

Rabbit’s sales patter seemed to have a similar foundation. Anyone sceptical of his mileage figures would be referred to the April issue of Consumer Reports. Yet one part of his spiel proved suspect. The dollar, which he thought was decaying in 1979, was actually about to revive. This recovery owed a lot to a big increase in interest rates by the Federal Reserve. It was also, in part, made in Japan. In 1980 Japan liberalised its capital account. Its investors began selling yen to buy dollars. The shopping spree for foreign assets that started then has yet to cease.

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