Inequality and poverty are topics of great interest to philanthropists and charities—which made this week’s news especially interesting to them because two very different speeches about income inequality made media splashes.
The first speech was delivered by Fed chairman Janet Yellen, who spoke at the Boston Fed about inequality and opportunity—a very unusual topic for a Fed Chairman, whose public remarks are generally confined to monetary policy. However, in a measured, moderate way, Yellen laid out four building blocks of wealth (resources for children, especially primary and secondary education; higher education; business ownership; and inheritances) and she described how disparities in these resources can exacerbate inequality.
The other newsworthy speech on inequality was delivered by Senator Elizabeth Warren, a potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, in which she declared:
Republicans, man, they ought to be wearing a T-shirt. . . . The T-shirt should say, “I got mine. The rest of you are on your own.”
In contrast to Yellen’s speech, Warren’s speech is an ugly imputation of mean-spiritedness on the part of Republicans. But it’s not much uglier than then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s 2012 statement:
There are 47 percent who are with [President Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it—that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. . . . I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Romney’s statement, like Warren’s, imputes a moral failure to a large fraction of the electorate. And those sweeping accusations of moral failure get in the way of the conversation we need to have about growing inequality.
Inequality is extremely urgent problem: while the wealthiest Americans have prospered since the great recession, median income for households with children has stayed level or declined every year since 2007. The number of Americans living in poverty has not budged for three years, and is 2 percent greater than in 2007. The labor force participation rate has fallen steadily since 2007 from roughly 66 percent to roughly 63 percent, and many households led by those who have dropped out of the workforce will never fully recover from this loss of income. This kind of systemic change in the economy can’t be explained by the supposed moral failings of large fractions of the citizenry.
This change in the economy points to a crisis in American civic life—they challenge the promise of the American dream, the hope that each generation will do better than the past, and that each American child has a chance to achieve any station in American society.
This crisis demands a sober, adult conversation—and we can’t have that conversation while each side is imputing moral failure to the other. And yet, as the Warren and Romney quotes show, that’s exactly what we’ve seen from presidential candidates and potential presidential candidates of both political parties—as well as elected officials and candidates for lower offices.
In short, we need more contributions like Yellen’s—moderate in tone, and grounded in data—to a national conversation about inequality.
But we need to hear not from the Fed chairman but from our elected leaders and candidates for office. The Federal Reserve is supposed to be politically neutral, and income inequality is a highly charged political topic. (As New York Times commentator Neil Irwin noted, former Chairman Ben Bernanke asserted that the Fed had no business commenting on inequality.) And, not only is the income inequality an inherently political topic that should be off limits to a Fed chairman, but Yellen gave her talk a partisan overtone by favorably citing Alan Krueger, former chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
So we can say that Yellen was the wrong person to talk about inequality. But she set an example of how we might go about having that conversation.