I think there is a tradeoff between inequality and full employment that becomes exacerbated as technological productivity improves. This is driven by the fact that the marginal benefit humans gain from current consumption declines much more rapidly than the benefit we get from retaining claims against an uncertain future.
Wealth is about insurance much more than it is about consumption. As consumers, our requirements are limited. But the curve balls the universe might throw at us are infinite. If you are very wealthy, there is real value in purchasing yet another apartment in yet another country through yet another hopefully-but-not-certainly-trustworthy native intermediary. There is value in squirreling funds away in yet another undocumented account, and not just from avoiding taxes. Revolutions, expropriations, pogroms, these things do happen. These are real risks. Even putting aside such dramatic events, the greater the level of consumption to which you have grown accustomed, the greater the threat of reversion to the mean, unless you plan and squirrel very carefully. Extreme levels of consumption are either the tip of an iceberg or a transient condition. Most of what it means to be wealthy is having insured yourself well.
An important but sad reason why our requirement for wealth-as-insurance is insatiable is because insurance is often a zero-sum game. Consider a libertarian Titanic, whose insufficient number of lifeboat seats will be auctioned to the highest bidder in the event of a catastrophe. On such a boat, a passenger’s material needs might easily be satisfied — how many fancy meals and full-body spa massages can one endure in a day? But despite that, one could never be “rich enough”. Even if one’s wealth is millions of times more than would be required to satisfy every material whim for a lifetime of cruising, when the iceberg cometh, you must either be in a top wealth quantile or die a cold, salty death. The marginal consumption value of passenger wealth declines rapidly, but the marginal insurance value of an extra dollar remains high, because it represents a material advantage in a fierce zero-sum competition. It is not enough to be wealthy, you must be much wealthier than most of your shipmates in order to rest easy. Some individuals may achieve a safe lead, but, in aggregate, demand for wealth will remain high even if every passenger is so rich their consumption desires are fully sated forever.
Our lives are much more like this cruise ship than most of us care to admit. No, we don’t face the risk of drowning in the North Atlantic. But our habits and expectations are constantly under threat because the prerequisites to satisfying them may at any time become rationed by price. Just living in America you (or at least I) feel this palpably. So many of us are fighting for the right to live the kind of life we always thought was “normal”. When there is a drought, the ability to eat what you want becomes rationed by price. If there is drought so terrible that there simply isn’t enough for everyone, the right to live at all may be rationed by price, survival of the wealthiest. Whenever there is risk of overall scarcity, of systemic rather than idiosyncratic catastrophe, there is no possibility of positive-sum mutual-gain insurance. There is only a zero-sum competition for the right to be insured. The very rich live on the very same cruise ship as the very poor, and they understandably want to keep their lifeboat tickets.
If insurance were not so valuable, it would be perfectly possible to have very high levels of inequality and have full employment. The very rich might employ endless varieties of servants to cater to their tiniest whims. They’d get little value from the marginal new employee, but the money they’d lose by paying a salary would have very little value to them, so the new hire could be a good deal. But because of the not-so-diminishing insurance value of wealth, the value of hiring someone to scratch yet another trivial itch eventually declines below the insurance value of holding property or claims. There is a limit to how many people a rich person will employ, directly or indirectly.
In “middle class” societies, wealth is widely distributed and most peoples’ consumption desires are not nearly sated. We constantly trade-off a potential loss of insurance against a gain from consumption, and consumption often wins because we have important, unsatisfied wants. So we employ one another to provide the goods and services we wish to consume. This leads to “full employment” — however many we are, we find ways to please our peers, for which they pay us. They in turn please us for pay. There is a circular flow of claims, accompanied by real activity we call “production”.
In economically polarized societies, this dynamic breaks down. The very wealthy don’t employ everybody, because the marginal consumption value of a new hire falls below the insurance value of retaining wealth. The very poor consume, but only the most basic goods. In low productivity, highly polarized economies, we observe high-flying elites surrounded by populations improvising a subsistence. The wealthy retain their station by corruption, coercion, and extraction while the poor employ themselves and one another in order to satisfy these depredations and still survive. Unemployment is not a problem, exactly, but poverty is. (To be “unemployed” in such a society means not to be idle, but to be laboring for an improvised subsistence rather than working for pay in the service of the elite.)
Idle unemployment is a problem in societies that are highly productive but very unequal. Here basic goods (food, clothing) can be produced efficiently by the wealthy via capital-intensive production processes. The poor do not employ one another, because the necessities they require are produced and sold so cheaply by the rich. The rich are glad to sell to the poor, as long as the poor can come up with property or debt claims or other forms of insurance to offer as payment.  The rich produce and “get richer”, but often they don’t much feel richer. They feel like they are running in place, competing desperately to provide all the world’s goods and services in order to match their neighbors’ hoard of financial claims. However many claims they collectively earn, individually they remain locked in a zero-sum competition among peers that leaves most of them forever insecure.
It is the interaction of productivity and inequality that makes societies vulnerable to idle unemployment. The poor in technologically primitive societies hustle to live. In relatively equal, technologically advanced societies, people create plenty of demand for one another’s services. But when productivity and inequality are combined, we get a highly productive elite that cannot provide adequate employment, and a mass of people who preserve more value by remaining idle and cutting consumption than by attempting low-productivity work. (See “rentism” in Peter Frase’s amazing Four Futures.)
One explanation for our recent traumas is that “advanced economies” have cycled from middle-class to polarized societies. We had a kind of Wile E. Coyote moment in 2008, when, collectively, we could no longer deny that much of the debt the “middle class” was generating to fund purchases was, um, iffy. So long as the middle class could borrow, the “masses” could simultaneously pay high-productivity insiders for efficiently produced core goods and pay one another for yoga classes. If you didn’t look at incomes or balance sheets, but only at consumption, we appeared to have a growing middle class economy.
But then it became impossible for ordinary people to fund their consumption by issuing debt, and it became necessary for people to actually pay down debt. The remaining income of the erstwhile middle class was increasingly devoted to efficiently produced basic goods and away from the marginal, lower productivity services that enable full employment. This consumption shift has the effect of increasing inequality, so the dynamic feeds on itself.
We end up in a peculiar situation. There remains technological abundance: “we” are not in any real sense poorer. But, as Izabella Kaminska wonderfully points out, in a zero-sum contest for relative advantage among producers, abundance becomes a threat when it can no longer be sold for high quality claims. Any alternative basis of distribution would undermine the relationship between previously amassed financial claims and useful wealth, and thereby threaten the pecking order over which wealthier people devote their lives to stressing and striving. From the perspective of those near the top of the pecking order, it is better and it is fairer that potential abundance be withheld than that old claims be destroyed or devalued. Even schemes that preserve the wealth ordering (like Steve Keen’s “modern jubilee“) are unfair, because they would collapse the relative distance between competitors and devalue the insurance embedded in some people’s lead over others.
The zero-sum, positional nature of wealth-as-insurance is one of many reasons why there is no such thing as a “Pareto improvement”. Macroeconomic interventions that would increase real output while condensing wealth dispersion undo the hard-won, “hard-earned” insurance advantage of the wealthy. As polities, we have to trade-off extra consumption by the poor against a loss of insurance for the rich. There are costs and benefits, winners and losers. We face trade-offs between unequal distribution and full employment. If we want to maximize total output, we have to compress the wealth distribution. If inequality continues to grow (and we don’t reinvent some means of fudging unpayable claims), both real output and employment will continue to fall as the poor can serve one another only inefficiently, and the rich won’t deploy their capital to efficiently produce for nothing.
Distribution is the core of the problem we face. I’m tired of arguments about tools. Both monetary and fiscal policy can be used in ways that magnify or diminish existing dispersions of wealth. On the fiscal side, income tax rate reductions tend to magnify wealth and income dispersion while transfers or broadly targeted expenditures diminish it. On the monetary side, inflationary monetary policy diminishes dispersion by transferring wealth from creditors to debtors, while disinflationary policy has the opposite effect. Interventions that diminish wealth and income dispersion are the ones that contribute most directly to employment and total output. But they impose risks on current winners in the race for insurance.
Why did World War II, one of the most destructive events in the history of world, engender an era of near-full employment and broad-based prosperity, both in the US where capital and infrastructure were mostly preserved, and in Europe where resources were obliterated? People have lots of explanations, and I’m sure there’s truth in many of them. But I think an underrated factor is the degree to which the war “reset” the inequalities that had developed over prior decades. Suddenly nearly everyone was poor in much of Europe. In the US, income inequality declined during the war. Military pay and the GI Bill and rationing and war bonds helped shore up the broad public’s balance sheet, reducing indebtedness and overall wealth dispersion. World War II was so large an event, organized and motivated by concerns so far from economic calculation, that squabbles between rich and poor, creditor and debtor, were put aside. The financial effect of the war, in terms of the distribution of claims in the US, was not very different from what would occur under Keen’s jubilee.
Although in a narrow sense, the very wealthy lost some insurance against zero-sum scarcities, the post-war boom made such scarcities less likely. It’s not clear, on net (in the US), that even the very wealthy were “losers”. A priori, it would have been difficult to persuade wealthy people that a loss of relative advantage would be made up after the war by a gain in absolute circumstance for everyone. There is no guarantee, if we tried the jubilee without the gigantic war, that a rising tide would lift even shrinking yachts. But it might very well. That’s a case I think we have to make, before some awful circumstance comes along to force our hand.
 It is interesting that even in very unequal, high productivity societies, one rarely sees the very poor reverting to low-tech, low productivity craft production of goods the wealthy can manufacture efficiently. One way or another, the poor in these societies get the basic goods they need to survive, and they mostly don’t do it by spinning their own yarn or employing one another to sew shirts. One might imagine that once people have no money or claims to offer, they’d be as cut off from manufactures as subsistence farmers in a low productivity society. But that isn’t so. Perhaps this is simply a matter of charity: rich people are human and manufactured goods are cheap and useful gifts. Perhaps it is just entropy: in a society that mass produces goods, it would take a lot of work to prevent some degree of diffusion to the poor.
However, another way to think about it is that the poor collectively sell insurance against riot and revolution, which the rich are happy to pay for with modest quantities of efficiently produced goods. “Social insurance” is usually thought of as a safety net that protects the poor from risk. But in very polarized societies, transfer programs provide an insurance benefit to the rich, by ensuring poorer people’s dependence on production processes that only the rich know how to manage. This diminishes the probability the poor will agitate for change, via politics or other means. Inequality may be more stable in technologically advanced countries, where inexpensive goods substitute for the human capital that every third-world slum dweller acquires, the capacity and confidence to improvise and get by with next to nothing.
- 4-Aug-2012, 6:10 p.m. EEST: Thanks to @EpicureanDeal for calling attention to my abysmal use of prepositions. Modified: “we have to trade-off extra consumption
forby the poor against a loss of insurance byfor the rich.” Also, eliminated a superfluous “the”: “The zero-sum, positional nature of thewealth-as-insurance is..”
- 8-Oct-2012, 1:20 a.m. EEST: “If there is drought
terribleso terrible”; “Perhaps this is simply a matter of thecharity”