Free Markets as a Way to Attack Income Inequality

In his column today, Paul Krugman explains how monopoly power is contributing to income inequality.

The argument begins with a seeming paradox about overall corporate behavior. You see, profits are at near-record highs, thanks to a substantial decline in the percentage of G.D.P. going to workers. You might think that these high profits imply high rates of return to investment. But corporations themselves clearly don’t see it that way: their investment in plant, equipment, and technology (as opposed to mergers and acquisitions) hasn’t taken off, even though they can raise money, whether by issuing bonds or by selling stocks, more cheaply than ever before.

How can this paradox be resolved? Well, suppose that those high corporate profits don’t represent returns on investment, but instead mainly reflect growing monopoly power. In that case many corporations would be in the position I just described: able to milk their businesses for cash, but with little reason to spend money on expanding capacity or improving service. The result would be what we see: an economy with high profits but low investment, even in the face of very low interest rates and high stock prices.

That analysis lines up well with Phillip Longman’s cover story in the Nov/Dec 2015 issue of the Washington Monthly where he discussed the roots of regional inequality in this country. He lays out the historical record of strong anti-trust legislation following the Great Depression and how – over the 70’s and 80’s – that was slowly but surely chipped away, leading to this pivotal moment.

Another turning point came in 1982, when President Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department adopted new guidelines for antitrust prosecutions. Largely informed by the work of Robert Bork, then a Yale law professor who had served as solicitor general under Richard Nixon, these guidelines explicitly ruled out any consideration of social cost, regional equity, or local control in deciding whether to block mergers or prosecute monopolies. Instead, the only criteria that could trigger antitrust enforcement would be either proven instances of collusion or combinations that would immediately bring higher prices to consumers.

This weekend, President Obama initiated an effort to reinvigorate a “free market economy.” In his weekly address, he brought it to a level most Americans understand all too well…cable boxes.

That was the President’s way of announcing a new executive order taking steps to increase competition. Here is how Jason Furman explained the need:

Across our economy, too many consumers are dealing with inferior or overpriced products, too many workers aren’t getting the wage increases they deserve, too many entrepreneurs and small businesses are getting squeezed out unfairly by their bigger competitors, and overall we are not seeing the level of innovative growth we would like to see. And a big piece of why that happens is anti-competitive behavior—companies stacking the deck against their competitors and their workers. We’ve got to fix that, by doing everything we can to make sure that consumers, middle-class and working families, and entrepreneurs are getting a fair deal.

And here is what the executive order does:

That’s why today, the President announced a broader new initiative through an Executive Order that calls on departments and agencies to make further progress through specific, pro-competition executive actions that empower and inform consumers, workers, and entrepreneurs. In 60 days, agencies will report back on specific areas where we can make additional progress.

Alongside that announcement, the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) released a new issue brief that describes the many benefits of competition, highlights recent work by the independent antitrust authorities, and argues that consumers, workers, entrepreneurs, and small businesses would benefit from additional policy actions to promote competition within a variety of industries.

I would note that the Department of Justice has already started with this announcement a couple of weeks ago.

The Department of Justice filed a civil antitrust lawsuit today seeking to block Halliburton Company’s proposed acquisition of Baker Hughes Inc., alleging that the transaction threatens to eliminate competition, raise prices and reduce innovation in the oilfield services industry.

The issue of income inequality is something that President Obama has repeatedly said is “the defining issue of our time.” Here is how he talked about it in December 2011:

…for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments — wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren’t — and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up….

But, Osawatomie, this is not just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.

Tackling the issue of income inequality is a multi-faceted and complex problem to solve. President Obama is certainly keeping his promise to “play through the fourth quarter” on that one.

P.S. In his column today, Krugman links to this 2010 article in the Washington Monthly by Barry Lynn and Phillip Longman titled: Who Broke America’s Jobs Machine?

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.