Debt, Class Warfare and Entrepreneurship

There is an uneasy relationship among debt, democracy and capitalism, as a new FT column ably makes clear. Here are some excerpts, starting with why debt in the U.S. has passed the levels of the Depression:

The answer is capitalism’s dirty little secret: excessive lending was the only way to maintain the living standards of the vast bulk of the population at a time when wealth was being concentrated in the hands of an elite.

The amount by which the elite has benefited is startling, and illustrates the problem with lightly regulated free markets: the rich get much richer while the rest do not get richer at all. According to Société Générale economists, the inflation-adjusted income of the highest-paid fifth of US earners has risen by 60 per cent since 1970, while it has fallen by more than 10 per cent for the rest. As was recently pointed out in the New York Review of Books, the Walton family, of Wal-Mart fame, is wealthier than the bottom third of the US population put together – about 100m people. These are staggering statistics, confirmed by measures such as the US and UK’s ever-rising Gini coefficients, which estimate income disparity. Another way of putting this is that the share of profits in gross domestic product is at a 100-year high, or was until very recently.

The preceding is such an important point. We became indebted, in large part, because of a structural imbalance in society, one that skewed incomes, redirected wealth, and encouraged companies and individuals to lever up instead of seeking out and earning higher incomes. At the same time, our unwillingness to say no to great society programs, without raising taxes to pay for them, meant that we became beholden to the bond market for funding ongoing operations, this creating an elevated base of required income to service our rising debt.

The solution is messy, multi-part and painful, but he closes on two notes with which I agree strongly:

…we should all come to terms with the fact that these are structural issues needing structural solutions; they need to be enforced over a longer time period than any one government’s term. So we need a new political consensus, one aimed at reducing overall debt levels while reducing inequality by encouraging education, entrepreneurship and investment in innovation.

Read the whole thing here.