Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Income Inequality and Economic Growth

Dad, can I have some money? Why do you need it honey? Because my friend got hurt and it makes me sad and if I bought a chocolate bar I might feel better. In that case, honey, here’s a five dollar bill. I hope you feel better soon. Come on. That is the dumbest reason ever given for wanting money from Dad and no kid would ever try it. But alas, Alan Blinder is up to his old tricks again and his article amounts to asking for that chocolate bar, “The Supply-Side Case for Government Redistribution,”” Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2014, page A13.

On July 1 I wrote a post Blindly Following Alan Blinder Over a Poverty Cliff. In that case I reviewed Blinder’s desires to expand most social programs aimed at low income persons.  Blinder never bothers with evaluating these programs and just cavalierly advocates expansion. If one billion wasn’t enough then we should try 2 billion.  In this August article Blinder gets more brazen when he concludes that long-run economic growth can and should be expanded if we spend more money on social programs.

Those of you who are not familiar with economic literature or colonoscopies should know that there is nothing written much-less proved or demonstrated about poverty programs causing economic growth. There are reams of articles written about the reverse – the impact of economic growth on poverty – but alas as Alan Blinder was hitting his deadline for the WSJ, he came up with a new and earth-shattering economic truth. If you want to increase economic growth then you should spend more money on programs for the poor.

Many of you will say that it sounds intuitive that helping the poor will create more economic growth. Widely shared economic growth models explain changes in long-term economic growth with several key indicators – labor, capital, and productivity. If turning a poor under-educated and unskilled person into a new and productive worker in the labor force can be accomplished, then the growth model shows how and why poverty programs might lead to stronger economic growth. And the reverse would be true too – rising poverty leading to fewer good workers in the work force would be bad for a country’s economic growth.

But just like needing chocolate to make you happy because your friend fell off her bicycle makes sense at some level, poverty programs simply are not an explanation for economic growth. The proof is in the pudding. Blinder made this whole thing up last week. Please someone show me in a journal or a book or a classroom or on a bathroom wall at an Irish Pub in Itaewon where economists have some sort of evidence to support the relevance of this idea.

There are several ironies here beyond lack of scientific rigor and evidence. First, Blinder says he wants to talk about the Supply-side as a means to promote stronger economic growth. Please pass me more JD. Isn't he among a group of liberal economists who routinely decry and label supply-side policy in the most horrible terms like trickle-down, Trojan Horse, and more? Second, Blinder says in the article about the ethical issue of poor people, “Either side can talk until it’s blue in the face without convincing the other.” Blinder apparently believes that ethics is not going to solve the poverty problem. 

Third, Blinder then goes on to minimize the case for improving national spending.  He argues that most people spend the same. Thus if you take $100 away from a person making $200,000 per year and give it to someone with $20,000 income per year – it would have no net effect on national spending. Thus poverty and income redistribution programs get no support from Blinder for ethics and spending.

And so we are left, according to Blinder, with economic growth. Help the poor more and the economy will grow stronger and faster.  And we better do it fast because we are becoming more unequal all the time. An afterthought of his article is that this inequality is exploding in both economic and political terms. That means we are all going to suffer because this will hurt economic growth even more. This is nonsense. I personally feel better about helping the poor because it is the right thing to do. And as I said in the last post, we do that best by first evaluating the programs we already have. We have 50 years of experience with such programs. An honest evaluation would find strengths and weaknesses. Why can’t we do such an evaluation before adding more fuel to the fire? 


  1. I agree with evaluating the programs first. Since the Great Society the poverty programs have expanded faster than the economy. If one visits any urban area they will find a level of dependence on these programs that was not there before. This Great Society is now embedded in our total economy and seems to have no upward mobility movement because, in my opinion, there is no incentive.

    I like to help the poor because it is a good thing to do. I also like to help them help themselves. That is a good investment in education at the lower level.

  2. According to government stats, only 30 cents of every dollar going to federal poverty programs gets to where it's needed. Not a very good record, and Blinder wants to exacerbate the problem.

  3. Dear LSD. Your analyses/commentary are always right on. I suggest you submit a rebuttal to the WSJ about Blinder’s blind spots.

    1. Hi Charles...thanks for your comment and suggestion. I don't think my style is conducive to a proper editorial decision at the WSJ -- and I definitely do not want to spend my retirement days re-writing things so they meet a publisher's requirements. I did that for about 40 years. Enough is enough.

  4. Food stamps are often viewed as one of the biggest programs for the poor. Some of the biggest supporters of food stamps, and even expanding food stamps, are companies like Frito Lay who like the increased demand for their products due to food stamps. When attempts to limit the array of products that food stamps can be used to purchase the biggest objections come from soft drink, potato chip, and candy makers who hire well known conservatives to lobby for them.

  5. Hi Anonymous, Since I am as much Libertarian as I am conservative, I am not sure I like the government telling me or the poor what we should eat and drink. Milton Friedman was the one, I think, who believed that if we are going to transfer money to the poor, we ought to just give them enough cash and let them decide what to do with it. That would be okay with me. Notice that approach also reduces the harm from corporatism.