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The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future by [Stiglitz, Joseph E.]
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A forceful argument against America's vicious circle of growing inequality by the Nobel Prize–winning economist.

America currently has the most inequality, and the least equality of opportunity, among the advanced countries. While market forces play a role in this stark picture, politics has shaped those market forces. In this best-selling book, Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz exposes the efforts of well-heeled interests to compound their wealth in ways that have stifled true, dynamic capitalism. Along the way he examines the effect of inequality on our economy, our democracy, and our system of justice. Stiglitz explains how inequality affects and is affected by every aspect of national policy, and with characteristic insight he offers a vision for a more just and prosperous future, supported by a concrete program to achieve that vision.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1510 KB
  • Print Length: 449 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (11 June 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B007MKCQ30
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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I have no economics background at all so I found it was quite hard to read, but it was worth it. It gave voice and numbers to the feeling I've had that something is amiss in our system. A thoroughly informative and interesting book.
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Joseph Stiglitz has really described how it really is for us. First class, persuasive material.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars 465 reviews
517 of 551 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Critical Warning for America 9 June 2012
By Adam - Published on
The Price of Inequality is an eloquent analysis of inequality in the United States and what it means for our political system, economy and society. The book does a good job of laying out the facts.

One sentence basically says it all: "The top 1 percent of Americans gained 93 percent of the additional income created in the country in 2010, as compared with 2009." Now think of that in terms of a party with 100 people and big pizza with 100 slices. Basically it means that one rich guy gobbles up 93 slices of pizza. The other 99 get to divvy up the other seven.

Stiglitz does an especially good job of refuting the received wisdom among conservatives: that incomes are in proportion to productive contribution to society. Instead, the book shows that much of our extraordinary income concentration is due to "rent seeking" by the wealthy elite, and that very often this involves taking advantage of taxpayers. We have a system that actively redistributes income and wealth from huge numbers of people at the bottom of the pyramid to a tiny number at the very top.

As the book shows, extreme income inequality is really a kind of cancer that infects almost every aspect of our social, political, economic and even legal system. A tiny elite is able to effectively purchase laws and regulations that work in its favor. For example, bankruptcy laws are designed to favor banks over homeowners and holders of student debt, even though the banks have access to much better information and expertise when making these loans. One idea that occurs throughout the book is that we should have "one person one vote" not "one dollar one vote." and yet the evidence is clear we are moving toward even more influence for those with money.
277 of 300 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Powerful and persuasive 9 June 2012
By Hans G. Despain - Published on
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Income inequality and wealth inequality have skyrocketed in the last 30 years. There is no dispute about this, but there are disputes over both the causes of this phenomenon and its effects.

In one sentence summary for those of you who like a very short review, this book has a threefold agenda. First to document the widely accessible and now well-known phenomenon of inequality, second to explain its cause and third understand its effects.

Also note that Stiglitz's book is very much an elaboration of his 2011 Vanity Fair article "Of the 1%, for the 1%, by the 1%." This article provides an excellent summary of the basic argument.

For those of you who like a longer review I will now provide a rather lengthy summary for those interested in the crucial issues of inequality, which are the root cause of the Occupy movement (see Richard Wolff excellent book _Occupy the Economy_, Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism (City Lights Open Media)) and global tensions (see James K. Galbraith's indispensable _Inequality and Instability_, Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis).

Stiglitz's book is really two books, the first book is 290 pages of very well argued and accessible text aimed at the above threefold agenda. The second book is 100 pages of notes, documentation, and very excellent citations and references. My review will concentrate on the text.

In chapter one Stiglitz emphasizes that the phenomena of income inequality has been occurring well before the financial crisis of 2008. Indeed inequality is suggested to be a root cause of the crisis itself. From pre-crisis, 1979 - 2007, the richest 1 percent of Americans received 60 percent of all gains income growth, the richest 5 percent of Americans received 80 percent of all income gains, while the 90 percent of American households receive 8.6 percent. These staggering statistics are completely unprecedented in U.S. history.

Indeed if we look closer most Americans were actually becoming worse off with respect to inflation-adjusted income from 1979 - 2007. Stiglitz writes: "While the top 1 percent was doing fantastically, most Americans were actually growing worse-off" (p. 3), even though real per capita GDP has increased by nearly 80 percent, "most American male full-time workers have seen their income go down" (p. 26).

The wealth inequality (assets such as stocks, bonds, real estate, etc.) is even greater than income inequality (see Edward Wolff's _Top Heavy_ Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It, Second Edition. But worse still, the quality of life, health benefits and job security has drastically deteriorated for most Americans since 1979. The Great Financial Recession has not caused these trends, but has made many of them worse (p. 27).

Both income and wealth inequality is explained by the symbiotic relationship between markets and government. While "market forces help shape the degree of inequality, government policies shape those market forces. Much of the inequality that exists today is a result of government policy, both what the government does and what it does not do" (p. 28).

This latter point is absolutely essential to the argument of the book. Businesses which want to make profits will attempt to circumvent competition and achieve monopoly-like power. This can be difficult, but because of "asymmetric information" (e.g. sellers having more information than the buyer) many industries can accomplish monopoly-like power within the market process.

More importantly to Stiglitz, if monopoly-like power cannot be achieved by means of market processes and marketing, then there is always "rent-seeking" activity.

Rent-seeking is the attempt to obtain windfall profits or "rents" by means of political privilege and advantage. In other words, rather than creating new wealth via new technology, marketing, new efficiencies, a business or industry will attempt to manipulate the political environment of the economic activity through political lobbying (Jamie Galbraith has provided the best and most sustained argument of this behavior in his brilliant book _The Predator State_, The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too, also see Charles H. Ferguson's _Predator Nation_, Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America).

The financial industry is able to exploit both asymmetric information situations and achieve rents-seeking privilege. Stiglitz writes, "the form of rent seeking that is most egregious - and that has been most perfected in recent years - has been the ability of those in the financial sector to take advantage of the poor and uninformed (p. 32). This is because financial companies almost always know more about their product (mortgage, derivative, stock, etc.) then do their customers, and the industry has been able to minimize any regulation or action by the government to even the playing field.

According to Stiglitz it is rent-seeking activity and the rise of what Jamie Galbraith calls the "The Predator State" that is the main cause of the both wealth and income inequality. According to Stiglitz, the main cause of inequality is not globalization, education, or technological change, although they do play part (p. 30), rather the main cause is political manipulation of rules and regulations by American businesses which have entered American politics through lobbying and financing campaigns (p 40ff).

Also playing a supporting role in the rise of inequality is macroeconomic policy (chapter 9), the decline in unionization, the incentives of corporations, and tax policies of the government.

Thus the causes of inequality are first and foremost (1) rent-seeking activity and the rise of The Predator State, then (2) tax policy, (3) macroeconomic policy (4) corporate governance and regulation, or lack thereof, (5) decline in unionization, (6) globalization, (7) technological change, and (8) education.

Now, importantly only causes (6) and (7) are market determined forces, all other causes and the primary cause are socio-political phenomenon. The good news here, according to Stiglitz is because of these socio-political phenomenon are policy determined, rather than market determined, then a change in policy can reduce most, although not all, of the inequality.

But why should we wish to change inequality at all? Or, what are the costs and benefits of inequality? This is addressed primarily in chapter four "Why It Matters." As society, "We are paying a high price for our large and growing inequality [...]. Those in the middle, and especially those at the bottom, will pay the highest price, but our country as a whole - our society, our democracy - also will pay a very high price" (p. 83). Inequality creates tension between citizens, increases criminality, and lowers life spans (see Richard Wilkenson's impressive work on these issues, The Impact of Inequality: How to Make Sick Societies Healthier, Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality, and The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger).

Economically inequality creates instability, lowers output, increases unemployment and decreases GDP, "unequal societies do not function efficiently, and their economies are neither stable nor sustainable in the long term" (p. 84).

Worse still, inequality is correlated with reductions in public investment to infrastructure and education, "massive distortions in the economy (especially associated with rent seeking), in law, and in regulations", and has negative effects on workers' and citizens morale (p. 94).

Stiglitz dedicates a chapter to the negative effects inequality has on democracy (see Larry Bartels, for an excellent argument from which Stiglitz draws, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. In other words, inequality is the _real_ road to serfdom and diminished freedom and weakened liberty. Economic inequality is at the same time political disempowerment, which places our "democracy in peril." Drawing heavily from behavior economics, chapter six explains how Americans misperceive the degree of inequality, fail to recognize its causes and misunderstand its consequences.

Chapter seven explains how inequality is now eroding the rule of law and created a nation of injustice and unfairness, diminishing socio-economic opportunities and political participation of citizens. In short, "inequality, combined with a flawed system of campaign finance, risks turning America's legal system into a travesty of justice" (p. 206)

The battle over the budget than is really a battle over inequality, while macroeconomic policy in the United States as made fetish of inflation at the neglect of other fiscal priorities, such as employment, infrastructure, and quality of life and personal security of citizens. "Macroeconomic and monetary policies that result in higher unemployment - and lower wages for ordinary citizens - are a major source of inequality in our society today. Over the past quarter century macroeconomic and monetary policies and institutions have failed to produce stability; they failed to produce sustainable growth; and, most importantly, they failed to produce growth that benefited most citizens in our society" (p. 264).

Stiglitz has solutions! (pp. 265-90) Reclaim the political process, curtail rent seeking activity and diminish political lobbying and the function of "The Predator State." Macroeconomic policy should not fetishize inflation, but emphasis employment policy and public investment in education, technology and infrastructure. Political policy should promote fairness and opportunity, curb excesses at the top, and institute real tax reform aimed at reducing inequality.

A powerful and well-argued book!
708 of 817 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Spot-on diagnosis, but weak medicine? 14 June 2012
By Frank A. Lewes - Published on
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I'm generally a Republican voter who leans toward the small businessperson's agenda of favoring small government and the lowest practical amounts of taxes and governmental regulations. However, several things have challenged my view in recent years:

* The financial collapse of 2008 took most all of us by surprise. We didn't realize how fragile our economy was or how easily it could be brought to the very brink of complete meltdown. The progress of economic recovery has also been astonishingly slow and even now the prospect of another leg down seems to be looming.

* As a student of economics I am familiar with how old-time Progressives approached the depressions of the late 1800s and early 1900s. They recognized that the primary problem was an imbalance between production and consumption. Consumers did not earn enough income to purchase the goods and services that the capitalists produced. They understood that producers and consumers must prosper together, so they lobbied to raise the minimum wage, require the payment of premiums for overtime hours, encourage the formation of labor unions, and enact Social Security and Unemployment programs to provide a floor under purchasing power when the economy went slack. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was based on these ideas of raising consumer's purchasing power. I believe they did stabilize the economy in the 1930s and were the basis of our post-WWII prosperity.

* I'm a Reagan Conservative who believes that Reagan's Supply Side agenda of cutting taxes was correct economic policy in the 1980s. However, it is a much different thing to cut maximum marginal taxes from 70% to 28% as Reagan did than to cut them from 39% to 15% (capital gains and dividends) as Bush did. The fact that the economy collapsed in 2008 after we reduced taxes on the higher incomes to their lowest levels since the 1920s and after we repealed the banking regulations such as the Glass-Steagall Act leads me to believe that lowering taxes and deregulating business is not the optimal economic policy in all circumstances.

* We have learned that malfeasance and even fraud were tolerated by too many of our corporation managements. Companies like Enron, Worldcom, Healthsouth, and Arthur Anderson blew themselves up with accounting frauds. The nation's largest financial institutions like Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Countrywide, AIG, Citibank, Bank America, Merrill Lynch very nearly brought down themselves and our entire economy by trading in unsound mortgage derivatives. It is easier to make the case that the economy's near-death experience was brought about by too little government oversight rather than too little.

Thus I am open to the ideas of people like Joseph Stiglitz that I would have scoffed at prior to 2008. I think his most powerful starting point is:

This book is not about the politics of envy: the bottom 99 percent by and large are not jealous of the social contributions that some of those among the 1 percent have made, of their well-deserved incomes.

Stiglitz is right that the Democrats are unlikely to convince the general public that their agenda is correct by engaging in negative attacks on the wealthy. They need to convince voters that reducing income inequality will benefit the wealthy as well as the poor. They must make the case that when the lot of the less-well-off is improved there will be more purchasing power available to consume the goods and services that the wealthy produce by investing in new factories and new technologies, and thus more profits for them too. All must prosper together.

Most of the book is a description of the symptoms of our economic malaise: falling wages and declining employment, and wealth being concentrated among the relative few who enjoy privileged positions in business and government. Most readers will probably agree with Stiglitz's diagnosis that income inequality is the root cause of the Great Recession and our agonizingly slow recovery out of it.

He also makes some crucially important points such as that while there are many people who achieve wealth through product innovation (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg) there are many others who achieve wealth by conspiring with others to manipulate markets. For example, CEO's who sit on each others' boards of directors collude to raise each others' compensation to levels that would have once been considered unseemly. Thus, wealth may be acquired for reasons that do not always result from the legitimate operation of the free market.

Having gotten off to such a strong start, this book must unfortunately come to the difficult part of putting forth realistic proposals for reform. Like so many others, it is nebulous in its proposed solutions. It mentions unfavorable trade imbalances as costing us jobs, but doesn't say what we should do specifically to correct those imbalances. It laments the passing of the manufacturing economy overseas, but argues against imposing tariffs on imported manufactured goods. It mentions wonkish-sounding ideas for regulating banks and businesses but doesn't explain them in an inspiring way that would make them popular planks in a campaign platform to carry to the people.

Stiglitz is cautious in discussing ideas like these. I get the impression (by his frequent use of the term "public investment") that his true agenda may be to pay lip service to reforming the private sector while funding a massive expansion of government ownership of the economy. If I am understanding him correctly, he is like Robert Reich in favoring a big-government economy whereby the Federal Government would own and operate bullet trains, wind farms, research and development parks, urban mass transit, jobs training schools, and so on. This is where I as a quasi-Conservative take issue with Stiglitz: I believe that government has a legitimate role in refereeing fair practices for the economy, but that it should not OWN the game.

I also take issue with Stiglitz's using much of the book to bolster his idea that, "The failures in politics and economics are related" and then going on and on about there being too much big-money influence in politics. IMO, the Democrats are failing at the ballot box because they are pushing agendas that primarily benefit big-government elitists, not the majority of the voters who work in the rank-and-file jobs of the private sector. Let the Democrats and Progressives hone their agenda until it DOES benefit the rank-and-file and see if they do not get better results.

Stiglitz makes the Liberal economic case in a gentlemanly way that will not offend Conservatives. In fact the book seems designed to change the perceptions of Conservatives and Centrists by educating them in a well-reasoned, congenial way to the need for greater government oversight of the economy. I think Conservatives who read the book in good faith will broaden their thinking beyond the ideologically rigid "business good, government bad" platitudes of sophomoric conservatism.

However, Democrat-leaning economists like Stiglitz may want to think beyond the idea that merely growing the public sector with tax increases will not bring sustainable economic growth.

It’s now four years later, and we are preparing for another election. Despite constant discussion, neither political party seems to have addressed this issue of income inequality satisfactorily. We now have insurgent candidate Donald Trump challenging the mainstream Republicans from the Populist Right, while Bernie Sanders has challenged the Democrats’ leader Hillary Clinton from the Socialist Left.

Perhaps both parties have become so bound by shopworn partisan ideologies that they no longer understand the importance that working a steady job means for the middle class. Income inequality is unlikely to be reduced unless the middle class has reasonable prospects for steady employment at wages sufficient to enable them to provide for their families.

We have spent the last 30 years making it difficult for the Middle Class to stay employed. Words like {downsizing, rightsizing, outsourcing, offshoring, work force reduction, involuntary early retirement} have entered the vocabulary to describe the dis-employment of the middle class. Labor force participation peaked in 1999 and has been in steady decline since then. Income inequality cannot be reduced by putting people out of work.

We keep hearing about the theory of “creative destruction” postulating that jobs destroyed in “obsolete” industries are always replaced by higher-paying jobs in new industries. Yet it seems that most of the new jobs being created today are not the promised “high-paying, high-technology” jobs, but low-skilled minimum wage jobs. Even the pay and benefits of skilled labor and professionals seems to be under pressure for a variety of reasons.

This is the point at which the discussion of HOW to reduce income inequality by improving the fortunes of the middle class becomes heated. Stiglitz seems reluctant to challenge the conventional wisdom among Democrats that leaving the private sector relatively free to operate in free market laissez-faire mode, while growing the public sector, will expand employment and reduce income inequality. So now we have Bernie Sanders proposing more direct control over the private sector from the Socialist direction.

Republican-aligned economists are reluctant to challenge their party’s conventional wisdom that tax cuts, increased immigration, and more free trade agreements will grow the economy and reduce income inequality. So, now we have Donald Trump challenging the Republicans from the Populist Right.

Perhaps we will have a clearer picture of how the public wants to remediate income equality after the votes are counted in this 2016 election.
35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Made me want to cheer and cry! 6 July 2012
By beck45a - Published on
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As a professor of business and economics for many years, this book made me alternately want to cheer and cry; cheer for the well-researched documentation, the obvious cause and effect of our economic and political policies currently failing most Americans, so obvious since at least 2000, while still showing the possible pathways for reinvigorating our American society, and cry for the accurate description of our current state of affairs and how difficult the proposed changes to get us back on track will be. I will be handing this book off to another professor who is running for State Senate this year so that she may also have this valuable resource.

Especially noted are pages 95 through 104 with the discussion regarding "How Inequality Makes for a Less Efficient and Productive Economy." Rental income not producing real goods, financing of wars, lack of negotiation in government contracts with inelastic oligopoly industries such as medical insurance and oil extraction, these are expenses that especially hurt the middle-class taxpayer while providing no additional benefit.

I very much would also like to mandate this reading to every member of Congress so that they would have an example of how the other class lives, as they seem to have forgotten.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Choose one: More inequality, Less inequality, or Status Quo 17 September 2012
By Paul Froehlich - Published on
Unfortunately, people rarely question their premises, ignoring or explaining away disconfirming evidence that challenges strongly held beliefs. That's human nature.

Consequently, conservatives are unlikely to change their minds in the event they read THE PRICE OF INEQUALITY: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future (Norton, 2012). Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz analyzes the causes and consequences of America's widening economic inequality - the highest in the developed world - and recommends policies to reverse that trend.

Conservatives justify inequality, invoking Ayn Randian principles, but Stiglitz challenges their premises, marshalling the evidence and explaining it in a way non-economists can understand.

One conservative premise is that growing economic inequality is good for the economy. Stiglitz documents just the opposite, and the IMF agrees, concluding in 2011 that "longer growth spells are robustly associated with more equality in the income distribution."

When most of the economic growth goes to the 1%, as it has been in recent years, there is less demand in the economy than there would be if growth were shared by most Americans, who tend to spend almost every penny.

Another conservative premise is that economic reward is directly tied to economic contribution to society. That belief has been belied by the bonuses paid to the bankers who helped cause the 2008 bank crisis, and by the profits enjoyed by the subprime mortgage industry and by for-profit colleges whose students often drop out and are left with crushing debt and worthless degrees.

Our growing inequality occurs along with declining economic mobility. The American Dream is more a memory of the distant past than a current reality, where success depends more on parental income and education than on anything else.

"We will never create a system with full equality of opportunity," writes Stiglitz, "but we can at least create more equality of opportunity." I'm not sure Romney and Ryan would agree.

The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future