The New Inequality Debate

More mainstream economists now find that the income mal-distribution reflects the political sway of elites, not economic imperatives. 

More and more mainstream economists have lately discovered a phenomenon that their discipline too often assumes away. They have discovered power. And this fundamentally changes the nature of the debate about inequality.

In the usual economic model, markets are mostly efficient. Power is not relevant, because competition will generally thwart attempts to place a thumb on the market scale. Thus if the society is becoming more unequal it must be (a favorite verb form) because skills are receiving greater rewards, and the less-skilled are necessarily left behind; or because technology is appropriately displacing workers; or because in a global market, lower-wage nations can out-compete Americans; or because deregulation makes markets more efficient, with greater rewards to winners; or because new financial instruments add such efficiency to the economy that they justify billion-dollar paydays for their inventors.

Increasingly, however, influential orthodox economists are having serious second thoughts. What if market outcomes and the very rules of the market game reflect political power, not market efficiency? Indeed, what if gross inequality is not efficient, and there is a broad zone of indeterminate income distributions consistent with strong economic performance? What if greater liberalization of financial markets produced tens of trillions of costs to the economy, benefits that are hard to discern, and billion-dollar paydays for traders that don’t comport with their contributions to general economic welfare? Evidence like this is piling up, and hard to ignore.