Why do the loudest complaints about income inequality come from those whose policies worsen it?
by George F. Will
Someone who is determined to disbelieve something can manage to disregard an Everest of evidence for it. So Barack Obama will not temper his enthusiasm for increased equality with lucidity about the government’s role in exacerbating inequality.
In the movie “Animal House,” Otter, incensed by the expulsion of his fraternity, says: “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture.” Such thinking gives us minimum-wage increases that do very little for very few. Meanwhile, there are farm bills, like the one Obama signed last month at Michigan State University.
MSU was one of the models for the land-grant colleges created under the 1862 Morrill Act, whose primary purpose was to apply learning to agriculture. Today, we apply crony capitalism to agriculture. The legislation Obama lavishly praised redistributes wealth upward by raising prices consumers pay. Vincent Smith of Montana State University says small non-farm businesses are almost 30 times more likely to fail than farms, partly because the $956 billion farm legislation continues agriculture’s thick safety net. The geyser of subsidies assures that farm households will continue to be 53 percent more affluent than average households.
Certain payments are, however, restricted. People making more than $900,000 annually are ineligible.
Seventy percent of Agriculture Department spending funds food services. Nearly 48 million people — almost as many live on the West Coast (in California, Oregon and Washington) — receive food stamps. This dependency, inimical to upward mobility, is assiduously cultivated by government through “outreach initiatives” to “increase awareness” and “streamline the application process.”
Between 2000, when 17 million received food stamps, and 2006, food stamp spending doubled, even though unemployment averaged just 5.1 percent . A few states have food stamp recruiters. An award was given to a state agency for a plan to cure “mountain pride” that afflicts “those who wished not to rely on others.”
Nearly two-thirds of households receiving food stamps qualify under “categorical eligibility” because they receive transportation assistance or certain other welfare services. We spend $1 trillion annually on federal welfare programs, decades after Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that if one-third of the money for poverty programs was given directly to the poor, there would be no poor. But there also would be no unionized poverty bureaucrats prospering and paying dues that fund the campaigns of Democratic politicians theatrically heartsick about inequality.
The welfare state, primarily devoted to pensions and medical care for the elderly, aggravates inequality. Young people just starting up the earnings ladder and families in the child-rearing, tuition-paying years subsidize the elderly, who have had lifetimes of accumulation. Households headed by people age 75 and older have the highest median net worth of any age group.
In this sixth year of near-zero interest rates, the government’s monetary policy breeds inequality. Low rates are intended to drive liquidity into the stock market in search of higher yields. The resulting boom in equity markets — up 30 percent last year alone — has primarily benefited the 10 percent who own 80 percent of all directly owned stocks. Charles Wolf writes in the Weekly Standard: “The financial sector’s profits rose from 18 percent of total corporate profits preceding the recession in 2007 to 23 percent in 2013.”
Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, says the total reserves of depository institutions “have ballooned from a pre-crisis level of $43 billion to $2.5 trillion .”
And? “The store of bank reserves awaiting discharge into the economy through our banking system is vast, yet it lies fallow.” The result is a scandal of squandered potential:
“In fourth quarter 2007, the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) was $14.7 trillion; at year-end 2013 it was estimated to be $17.1 trillion. Had we continued on the path we were on before the crisis, real GDP would currently be roughly $20 trillion in size. That’s a third larger than it was in 2007. Yet the amount of money lying fallow in the banking system is 60 times greater now than it was at year-end 2007.”
The monetary base having expanded 340 percent in six years, there is abundant money for businesses. But, says Fisher, the federal government’s fiscal and regulatory policies discourage businesses from growing the economy with the mountain of money the Fed has created. This is why “the most vital organ of our nation’s economy — the middle-income worker — is being eviscerated.” And why the loudest complaints about inequality are coming from those whose policies worsen it.
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George F. Will is a columnist with The Washington Post.