We are entering a recession – but what did we learn from the last one? March 20, 2020, in The Conversation, Ken-Hou Lin, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Texas at Austin and Megan Neely, Postdoctoral Researcher, Stanford University
Yet it is clear that these two downturns differed not only in severity but also in the consequences they had for inequality in the United States.
Though the Depression was bigger and longer than the Great Recession, the decades following the Great Depression substantially reduced the wealth of the rich and improved the economic security of many workers. In contrast, the Great Recession exacerbated both income and wealth inequality.
Some scholars have attributed this phenomenon to a weakened labor movement, fewer worker protections and a radicalized political right wing.
In our view, this account misses the dominance of Wall Street and the financial sector and overlooks its fundamental role in generating economic disparities.
We are experts in income inequality, and our new book, “Divested: Inequality in the Age of Finance,” argues that inequality from the Recession has a lot to do with how the government designed its response.
Reforms during the Great Depression restructured the financial system by restricting banks from risky investment, Wall Street from gambling with household savings and lenders from charging high or unpredictable interests.
The New Deal, a series of government programs created after the Great Depression, took a bottom-up approach and brought governmental resources directly to unemployed workers.
On the other hand, the regulatory policies since the financial crisis that began in 2008 were largely designed to restore a financial order that, for decades, has been channeling resources from the rest of the economy to the top.
In other words, the recent recovery was largely focused on finance. Governmental stimuli, particularly a mass injection of credit, first went to banks and large corporations, in the hope that the credit eventually would trickle down to families in need.
The conventional wisdom was that banks knew how to put the credit into best use. And so, to stimulate economic growth, the Federal Reserve increased the supply of money to banks by purchasing treasury and mortgage-backed securities.
But the stimulus didn’t work the way the government intended. The banks prioritized their own interests over those of the public. Instead of lending the money out to homebuyers and small businesses at historically low interest rates, they deposited the funds and waited for interest rates to rise.
Similarly, corporations did not use the easy credit to increase wages or create jobs. Rather, they borrowed to buy their own stock and channeled earnings to top executives and shareholders.
As a result, the “banks and corporations first” principle created a highly unequal recovery.
Who lost in 2009?
The financial crisis wiped out almost three-quarters of financial sector profits, but the sector had fully recovered by mid-2009, as we covered in our book.
Its profits continued to grow in the following years. By 2017, the sector made 80% more than before the financial crisis. Profit growth was much slower in the nonfinancial sector.
Companies outside of the financial sector were more profitable because they had fewer employees and lower wage costs. Payroll expenses dropped 4% during the recession and remained low during the recovery.
The stock market fully recovered from the crisis in 2013, a year when the unemployment rate was as high as 8% and the single-family mortgage delinquency still hovered above 10%.
Median household wealth, in the meantime, had yet to recoup from the nosedive during the Great Recession.
The racial wealth gap only widened, as well. While the median household wealth of all households dropped around 25% after the burst of real estate bubble, white households recovered at a much faster pace.
By 2016, black households had about 30% less wealth than before the crash, compared to 14% for white families.
As the government debates a stimulus package, officials can either decide to continue the “trickle-down” approach to first protect banks, corporations and their investors with monetary stimuli.
Or, they can learn from the New Deal and bring governmental support directly to the most fragile communities and families.
NYTimes excerpt March 2020
The $700 billion bank bailout elicited a voter backlash, which means any aid this time is likely to have large strings attached. Those could include limits on executive compensation, prohibitions on stock buybacks and, most prominent, measures to force bailed out companies to keep workers on their payrolls. –
“You’re trying to keep individuals and firms solvent.”
But Joseph S. Vavra, an economist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business who has studied how the policies used to fight the Great Recession worsened inequality, said any bailouts should help companies and their workers, not reward shareholders.
“What we don’t really want is bailouts to well-off equity holders,” he said. “We want airlines to still exist when this thing ends, but we also ideally don’t want to be transferring $50 billion to the most well-off people in the economy, who are the stockholders of the airlines.”
Even groups that normally oppose government assistance to businesses are expressing openness to it now. But they are tempering that with warnings that any effort seen as benefiting shareholders and corporate executives over ordinary workers will be met with a strong opposition.
“There is still a strong view in this country that in 2008, Wall Street got bailed out and Main Street got the bill,” said Dennis Kelleher, the president of Better Markets, which advocates more regulation of the finance industry. “So that kindling is already there throughout the American population, and it’s not going to take much to ignite that kindling and set off a backlash of potentially catastrophic consequences.”
By 2010, the Tea Party movement was raging, and the bailout was a huge issue as conservatives sought to knock off Obama allies in both parties. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, one of the three Republicans who backed the stimulus plan, had to switch parties and still went down in defeat.
In Utah, Senator Robert F. Bennett, a close Republican ally of Mr. McConnell, was met at the state Republican convention with angry chants of “TARP, TARP, TARP!” He lost his party’s nomination to Mike Lee, who was backed by the Tea Party and remains in the Senate today.
Democrats lost their House majority and six seats in the Senate. In politics, bailout remains a dirty word, which could complicate economic recovery efforts if lawmakers worry that voters might punish them for going too far in bucking up struggling industries.
“I think ‘bailout’ is not a helpful term,” said Representative Katie Porter, Democrat of California. “I think what we are really trying to do is stabilization, and stabilization at the household level, in particular, that will help stabilize the economy as a whole.”
Currently 75% of workers are not eligible for unemployment
70% of tip workers (range of $2/hr) are women. Often the only meal they eat of the day is the “family meal” at the restaurant.
Current proposal gives $2400 to hh with $150K, for $19K $600.
Also relevant: investments that target of keeping temperature increase within the range of 1.5°(C) or less.