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Exclusive Interview: Joseph Stiglitz Sees Bleak Future for America If We Don't Reverse Inequality

What will life look like down the road if we don't reverse economic inequality? We must see through the myths of capitalism and build a mass movement if we are to save ourselves.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, one of America's most prescient voices, wrote an article for Vanity Fair several months before Occupy Wall Street was born. "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" called attention to the widening gap between rich and poor and its deadly impact on our society and its democratic institutions. In his newly released book, The Price of Inequality, Stiglitz returns to this theme of a divided society, delving into the origins and consequences of economic unfairness. I caught up with Professor Stiglitz and talked to him about how the persistent myths and beliefs associated with our capitalist system help to drive this trend, turning America from a land of opportunity to a land of broken dreams.

Lynn Parramore: An argument has been made, particularly since the end of the Cold War, that capitalism is great at producing things that can improve our lives, and so we ought to therefore tolerate some unfairness. What's wrong with that narrative?

Joseph Stiglitz: Well, capitalism does have a lot of strengths, including producing things that are very innovative. But what drives capitalism is the profit motive. You can profit not only by making good things, but also by exploiting people, by exploiting the environment, by doing things that are not so good. The narrative that you describe ignores the extent to which a lot of the inequalities in the United States are not the result of creative activity but of exploitive activity. And if you look at the people at the top, what is so striking is that the people who've made the most important creative contributions are not there.

By that I mean the really foundational things like the computer, the transistor, the laser. And how many people at the top are people who made their money out of monopoly -- exercising monopoly power? Like bankers who exploited through predatory lending practices and abusive credit card practices. Or CEOs who took advantage of deficiencies in corporate governance to get a larger share of the corporate revenues for themselves without any regard to the extent to which they have actually contributed to increasing the the sustainable well-being of the firm. 

LP: How does our current situation compare to other eras in terms of the differences between ordinary Americans and the richest among us?

JS: Doing a precise comparison is difficult because we don't have data sets that go back that far. But we do have data sets that go back more than 30 years and what is clear is that the share of the top 1 percent has almost tripled since 1980. So, this kind of inequality at the top has unambiguously gotten much, much, much worse. We also have data on the extent to which there's been a hollowing out of the middle class. The data that recently came out from the Fed indicated that we've wiped out 20 years of increases and wealth for the middle American.

LP: So for most of us, 20 years of economic progress just went up in smoke. But the super-rich are doing very well. What happened?

JS: It's the peculiar nature of the American economy, which is that's it's a very powerful machine that is working for a very few people, and has not been delivering for most Americans. If you had an economic machine that worked the way it was supposed to, everybody would be getting better. And an economy that's normally growing, say, 3 percent, even over a 20-year period. Steady accumulation would lead to their wealth more than doubling in that period. And it clearly hasn't happened. And adjusted for inflation, it would have even increased even before, unadjusted for inflation, would have increased it even more. And that clearly hasn't happened.

LP: There's a persistent myth that America is still the "land of opportunity." Why is that myth so prevalent, even in the face of so much evidence to the contrary?

JS: Well, there are two reasons for this. One of them is that the myth is so much part of our sense of identity as Americans that it is devastating for us to give it up -- for us to say we are less of a land of opportunity than old ossified Europe. It was one of the things we were most proud of, and clearly, it's not true. When you have something that's so inconsistent with your self image, it's really, really hard to face the facts.