Fiscal Policy’s Futile Equality Expectation on Its Own

By Karen Petrou

  • Distributional data show clearly that, fiscal stimulus notwithstanding, the U.S. was still more economically unequal in 2020.
  • Only fiscal policy once combined also with progressive financial policy will put the inequality engine into reverse.

As we have noted before, the Fed’s new Distributional Financial Accounts of the United States (DFA) is a definitive source of economic-equality data we hope the Fed will not just compile, but also use for policy-making purposes.  The latest edition of the DFA demonstrates yet again why distributional data are so compelling, showing now the profound challenge even unprecedented fiscal policy on its own faces slowing down the inexorable engine of inequality.  Still more fiscal stimulus in 2021 will boost absolute income and wealth numbers a bit at some benefit to low-, moderate-, and even middle-income households.  Still, the upward march of financial markets powered in large part by Fed policy inexorably widens the inequality gap.  No matter the “crust of bread and such” from fiscal programs, inequality still increases the slow pace of economic growth, the risk of financial crises, and the odds that the electorate will be even angrier in 2024 than 2020.  

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How Inequality, Not Polling, Predicted the 2020 Election

By Karen Petrou

Perhaps nothing is as startling about the 2020 election as the bad calls pollsters made up to the minute votes were counted.  One might have thought all the mistakes that led to similar 2016 gaffes were corrected – pollsters certainly said so – but they weren’t and the reason why is sad, but simple.  The political-science models on which polling is premised are, like monetary-policy models and so much conventional wisdom, predicated on the vibrant U.S. middle class that once was but is no more.  As we showed early on the economic inequality blog, economic inequality breeds not just acute political polarization, but also a strongly right-leaning shift in voter sentiment.  No wonder – American voters denied the iconic promise of modest economic security and inter-generational mobility are angry.  The more they see prosperity enjoyed by only a few and often a progressive few at that, the angrier they get.  Add in COVID, and this is a witch’s brew of economic despair, social anger, political polarization, and national instability.

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The Dollars That Make a Difference: Results of the New Survey of Consumer Finances

By Matthew Shaw and Karen Petrou

Every three years, the Federal Reserve releases a unique, illuminating data set, the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF).  The most recent report covering 2016 to 2019 comes at a time of acute political risk for the U.S. central bank due to growing demands for a third, “racial-equity” mandate and heightened recognition of the inequality impact of post-crisis monetary policy.  Perhaps for this reason, the Fed’s qualitative release and much subsequent media coverage highlighted what the Fed described as meaningful reductions in both wealth and income inequality.  Would it were so – percentages sometimes work in the Fed’s favor, but real dollars in people’s pockets, or the acute lack thereof, don’t.

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Big Fed or BigTech? The Force Behind U.S. Inequality

By Karen Petrou

  • An influential new Fed staff study asserts that increased market power is to blame for much of U.S. income inequality over the past forty years, discounting monetary policy’s impact after 2008 by looking only at inflation, not also at QE and ultra-low rates. 
  • Incorporating these factors into its construct and reviewing other research suggests a large causal role also for post-crisis monetary policy.
  • Which is worse is yet to be told, but it seems clear that market concentration, monetary policy-fueled asset-valuation hikes, and ultra-low rates exacerbate the structural factors on which the Fed continues to blame economic inequality.  Indeed, concentration and post-crisis policy are likely to be considerably more causal than the prolonged decline in educational quality, demographic shifts, increased innovation, and perhaps even regressive fiscal policy.
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If You Liked the Last Crisis ….

By Karen Petrou

  • New data show that the COVID pandemic is creating even more income inequality than the great financial crisis, which is saying something.
  • Wealth inequality is already climbing to unprecedented heights due to Fed intervention and resulting market gains.
  • Absent fiscal policy that reduces income inequality and a change in financial policy benefiting wealth equality, post-pandemic inequality could be still more toxic, exacerbating longstanding challenges to macroeconomic growth and increasing financial-crisis risk.
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