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Joseph Stiglitz: The Price of Inequality

Influential economist Joseph Stiglitz explains why our economic system is failing most Americans.

What happened to America, land of opportunity? In his new book, which hit the shelves yesterday, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz takes up that burning question. Taking a long, hard look at the global specter of inequality, Stiglitz describes what causes it, why the trend endangers our future and what to do about it. Stiglitz begins by describing the broader failures of our economic system and how these failures have led to a widespread sense of unfairness and reduced opportunity for most of us. [Reprinted from The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz. Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Stiglitz. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.]

The failure of markets

Markets have clearly not been working in the way that their boosters claim. Markets are supposed to be stable, but the global financial crisis showed that they could be very unstable, with devastating consequences. The bankers had taken bets that, without government assistance, would have brought them and the entire economy down. But a closer look at the system showed that this was not an accident; the bankers had incentives to behave this way.

The virtue of the market is supposed to be its efficiency. But the market obviously is not efficient. The most basic law of economics—necessary if the economy is to be efficient—is that demand equals supply. But we have a world in which there are huge unmet needs—investments to bring the poor out of poverty, to promote development in less developed countries in Africa and other continents around the world, to retrofit the global economy to face the challenges of global warming. At the same time, we have vast underutilized resources—workers and machines that are idle or are not producing up to their potential. Unemployment—the inability of the market to generate jobs for so many citizens—is the worst failure of the market, the greatest source of inefficiency, and a major cause of inequality.

As of March 2012, some 24 million Americans who would have liked a full-time job couldn’t get one.

In the United States, we are throwing millions out of their homes. We have empty homes and homeless people.

But even before the crisis, the American economy had not been delivering what had been promised: although there was growth in GDP, most citizens were seeing their standards of living erode. For most American families, even before the onset of recession, incomes adjusted for inflation were lower than they had been a decade earlier. America had created a marvelous economic machine, but evidently one that worked only for those at the top.

So much at stake

This book is about why our economic system is failing for most Americans, why inequality is growing to the extent it is, and what the consequences are. The underlying thesis is that we are paying a high price for our inequality—an economic system that is less stable and less efficient, with less growth, and a democracy that has been put into peril. But even more is at stake: as our economic system is seen to fail for most citizens, and as our political system seems to be captured by moneyed interests, confidence in our democracy and in our market economy will erode along with our global influence. As the reality sinks in that we are no longer a country of opportunity and that even our long-vaunted rule of law and system of justice have been compromised, even our sense of national identity may be put into jeopardy.

In some countries the Occupy Wall Street movement has become closely allied with the antiglobalization movement. They do have some things in common: a belief not only that something is wrong but also that change is possible. The problem, however, is not that globalization is bad or wrong but that governments are managing it so poorly—largely for the benefit of special interests. The interconnectedness of peoples, countries, and economies around the globe is a development that can be used as effectively to promote prosperity as to spread greed and misery. The same is true for the market economy: the power of markets is enormous, but they have no inherent moral character. We have to decide how to manage them. At their best, markets have played a central role in the stunning increases in productivity and standards of living in the past two hundred years—increases that far exceeded those of the previous two millennia.