American Dream Now A Myth. top economist explains why
selections from an interview with Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winning economist and former Chief Economist to the World bank.
SPIEGEL: Professor Stiglitz, how do you expect the next President of the United States to tackle the problem of unequal distribution of wealth?
Stiglitz: First, he has to recognize that there is a problem at all. Watching inequality grow is like watching the grass grow. You don't see it happening day by day, but over a period of time it becomes visible.
SPIEGEL: What is the scale this inequality?
Stiglitz: In the last decades, income and wealth disparity have grown dramatically in this country. Let me give you an example: In 2011, the six heirs to the Walmart empire commanded wealth of almost $70 billion, which is equivalent to the wealth of the entire bottom 30 percent of US society.
SPIEGEL: The US has always thought of itself as a land of opportunity where people can go from rags to riches. What has become of the American dream?
Stiglitz: This belief is still powerful, but the American dream has become a myth. The life chances of a young US citizen are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in any other advanced industrial country for which there is data. The belief in the American dream is reinforced by anecdotes, by dramatic examples of individuals who have made it from the bottom to the top -- but what matters most are an individual's life chances. The belief in the American dream is not supported by the data.
SPIEGEL: We thought that as a rule Americans don't begrudge the rich their wealth, though.
Stiglitz: There is nothing wrong if someone who has invented the transistor or made some other technical breakthrough that is beneficial for all receives a large income. He deserves the money. But many of those in the financial sector got rich by economic manipulation, by deceptive and anti-competitive practices, by predatory lending. They took advantage of the poor and uninformed, as they made enormous amounts of money by preying upon these groups with predatory lending. They sold them costly mortgages and were hiding details of the fees in fine print.
SPIEGEL: Why didn't the government stop this behavior?
Stiglitz: The reason is obvious: The financial elite support the political campaigns with huge contributions. They buy the rules that allow them to make the money. Much of the inequality that exists today is a result of government policies.
SPIEGEL: Can you give us an example?
Stiglitz: In 2008, President George W. Bush claimed that we did not have enough money for health insurance for poor American children, costing a few billion dollars a year. But all of a sudden we had $150 billion to bail out AIG, the insurance company. That shows that something is wrong with our political system. It is more akin to "one dollar, one vote" than to "one person, one vote."
SPIEGEL: So your answer to the inequality problem is to transfer money from the top to the bottom?
Stiglitz: First, transferring money from the top to the bottom is only one suggestion. Even more important is helping the economy grow in ways that benefit those at the bottom and top, and ending the "rent seeking" that moves so much money from ordinary citizens to those at the top.
SPIEGEL: No matter what the costs? No private household can live beyond its means permanently. Why should governments be exempted from that rule?
Stiglitz: Because countries are different from households. If a citizen cuts back his spending, it is without any consequences for the country. Unemployment does not increase. But if the government cuts back its spending, it has a major effect. An expansion of spending can increase production by creating jobs that will be filled by people who would otherwise be unemployed.
SPIEGEL: You assume that a government knows best where to create jobs. Don't you overestimate that ability?
Stiglitz: We need roads, bridges and airports. That's obvious. The returns from public investments in technology on average have been very high -- think about the Internet, the Human Genome Project and the telegraph.
SPIEGEL: There are also many examples of public money that was wasted. The US space program cost a fortune, and the results were questionable.
Stiglitz: But even those expenditures are still less than the money wasted by America's private financial sector, and the billions spent to bail out companies from the financial sector. One corporation alone, AIG, got more than $150 billion -- more than was spent on welfare for needy families from 1990 to 2006.