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Krugman: Now that's rich: Fortune and inequality

Institutional Investor's latest "rich list" in its Alpha magazine, its survey of the 25 highest-paid hedge fund managers, is out — and it turns out that these guys make a lot of money. Surprise! Yet before we dismiss the report as nothing new, let's think about what it means that these 25 men (yes, they're all men) made a combined $21 billion in 2013. In particular, let's think about how their good fortune refutes several popular myths about income inequality in America.

First, modern inequality isn't about graduates. It's about oligarchs. Apologists for soaring inequality almost always try to disguise the gigantic incomes of the truly rich by hiding them in a crowd of the merely affluent. Instead of talking about the 1 percent or the 0.1 percent, they talk about the rising incomes of college graduates, or maybe the top 5 percent. The goal of this misdirection is to soften the picture, to make it seem as if we're talking about ordinary white-collar professionals who get ahead through education and hard work.

But many Americans are well-educated and work hard. For example, schoolteachers. Yet they don't get the big bucks. Last year, those 25 hedge fund managers made more than twice as much as all the kindergarten teachers in America combined. And, no, it wasn't always thus: The vast gulf that now exists between the upper-middle-class and the truly rich didn't emerge until the Reagan years.

Second, ignore the rhetoric about "job creators" and all that. Conservatives want you to believe that the big rewards in modern America go to innovators and entrepreneurs, people who build businesses and push technology forward. But that's not what those hedge fund managers do for a living; they're in the business of financial speculation, which John Maynard Keynes characterized as "anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be." Or since they make much of their income from fees, they're actually in the business of convincing other people that they can anticipate average opinion about average opinion.

Once upon a time, you might have been able to argue with a straight face that all this wheeling and dealing was productive, that the financial elite was actually providing services to society commensurate with its rewards. But, at this point, the evidence suggests that hedge funds are a bad deal for everyone except their managers; they don't deliver high enough returns to justify those huge fees, and they're a major source of economic instability.

More broadly, we're still living in the shadow of a crisis brought on by a runaway financial industry. Total catastrophe was avoided by bailing out banks at taxpayer expense, but we're still nowhere close to making up for job losses in the millions and economic losses in the trillions. Given that history, do you really want to claim that America's top earners — who are mainly either financial managers or executives at big corporations — are economic heroes? Finally, a close look at the rich list supports the thesis made famous by Thomas Piketty in his book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" — namely, that we're on our way toward a society dominated by wealth, much of it inherited, rather than work.

At first sight, this may not be obvious. The members of the rich list are, after all, self-made men. But, by and large, they did their self-making a long time ago. As Bloomberg View's Matt Levine points out, these days a lot of top money managers' income comes not from investing other people's money but from returns on their own accumulated wealth — that is, the reason they make so much is the fact that they're already very rich.

And this is, if you think about it, an inevitable development. Over time, extreme inequality in income leads to extreme inequality of wealth; indeed, the wealth share of America's top 0.1 percent is back at Gilded Age levels. This, in turn, means that high incomes increasingly come from investment income, not salaries. And it's only a matter of time before inheritance becomes the biggest source of great wealth.

But why does all of this matter? Basically, it's about taxes.

America has a long tradition of imposing high taxes on big incomes and large fortunes, designed to limit the concentration of economic power as well as raising revenue. These days, however, suggestions that we revive that tradition face angry claims that taxing the rich is destructive and immoral — destructive because it discourages job creators from doing their thing, immoral because people have a right to keep what they earn.


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