The Federal Reserve’s latest Survey of Consumer Finances, according to Federal Reserve Governor Brainard, shows that the share of income held by the top 1 percent of households has risen from 17 percent in 1988 to 24 percent in 2015, and that the wealth held by that same group rose from 30 percent in 1989 to 39 percent in 2016.
There are many explanations of why the gap between the rich and the poor widens. Governor Brainard attributes some of it to labor market disparities relating to geography and to race and ethnicity. She and Robert Frank say it results from the wealthiest households being much more likely to invest additional money received than those in other income groups. Vincent Del Giudice and Wei Lu blame automation and robotics. John Tamny says it is a consequence of the explosion in entrepreneurship that has benefited us all. A Tax Policy Center report concludes that it will widen even more if the president’s income tax overhaul is enacted.
The Brookings Institute held a conference to explore whether monetary policy widens the wealth gap. Mainstream economists support expansionary monetary policy because the income gap closes after mortgage payments are lowered when homes are refinanced at lower interest rates. However, a conference panelist and former Federal Reserve (Fed) board member Kevin Warsh referred to the Fed’s monetary policy during the financial crisis as being “reverse Robin Hood.” This view has merit because the Fed’s purchases of securities push interest rates down and expand the money supply. The expansion of money then inflates the prices of financial assets, which are disproportionately owned by the rich.
In a previous article for Mises Wire, I discussed data that seems to support both sides of the Brookings debate.
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