It's a cliché, of course, that the 2000s are the new Gilded Age, that inequality in America is at levels not seen since the original Gilded Age, which you may recall was ended by a terrible depression.
During this decade's tiresome debates about inequality, the don't-worry-be-happy side of the argument frequently, and correctly, noted that income inequality statistics overstate the lived experience of inequality, since the poor spent more than they earn and the rich spent less.
Of course, the poor spend more than they earn primarily by taking on debt. In the halcyon days of 2006, that was no problem. Credit flowed like honey, and what could always be refinanced need never be repaid. It's a wonder we didn't do away with the whole "money" thing entirely. If you can spend all the way down to negative infinity, it hardly matters whether your starting wealth is one dollar or a billion dollars. Why keep track?
But, alas, people did keep track. They also stopped lending to people who might not be able to repay, people who, you know, spend more than they earn. Which means, even putting aside the terrible hardship of bankruptcy, or struggling to pay down old loans, all of a sudden the lived experience of inequality must come very much to resemble those unpleasant income inequality statistics. Are we cool with that?
In a way, the credit crisis comes out of a tension between the broad-middle-class America of our collective imagination and the economically polarized nation we have in fact come to be. We borrowed to finance an illusory Mayberry. The crisis won't be over until this tension is resolved. Either we modify the facts of our economic relations, or we come to terms with a new America more comfortable with distinct and enduring social classes.
Tanta and Calculated Risk have popularized the notion that "We are all subprime now." But that simply isn't true. The vast majority may be subprime now, but not all of us. To use an old expression, as the easy money falls away, we are being left to "find our own level". For many, it may be quite a bit lower than we had imagined.
I'm sure this is a bit polemic, but I don't think it is much overstated. Credit was the means by which we reconciled the social ideals of America with an economic reality that increasingly resembles a "banana republic". We are making a choice, in how we respond to this crisis, and so far I'd say we are making the wrong choice. We are bailing out creditors and going all personal-responsibility on debtors. We are coddling large institutions of prestige and power, despite their having made allocative errors that would put a Soviet 5-year plan to shame. We applaud the fact that "wage pressures are contained", protecting the macroeconomy of the wealthy from the microeconomy of the middle class.
The credit crisis will end, and life in America will go on. What we have to decide now is, when the floodwaters clear, what kind of country will be revealed. Peering down through the murk, I don't like what I am seeing.
Addendum: Tyler Cowen was prophetic on this point. He wrote in January, 2007 on income vs. consumption inequality:
People may be borrowing and accumulating large debts. Note that in this case, however, the comeuppance, however bad it may be, has yet to come. It could instead be argued that "inequality will (someday, when the debts come due) be a serious problem."
Welcome to someday, Labor Day, 2008.
FD: I'm still very stagflation-oriented in my personal portfolio (precious metals, short long bonds and stocks), so the wage-price spiral demagoguing might be interpreted as self-interested. That said, no apologies. It astonishes me that even very liberal economists take comfort in the evisceration of wage-earners' bargaining power. Yes, it means that Ben doesn't need to hike, regardless of what commodities do. But what kind of economy are we building when we take the price of past mistakes out of future wage-earners' pay packets, while protecting the accumulated wealth of those who profited by erring?