Thursday, November 18, 2010

a hedge fund republic?

NYTimes | Earlier this month, I offended a number of readers with a column suggesting that if you want to see rapacious income inequality, you no longer need to visit a banana republic. You can just look around.

My point was that the wealthiest plutocrats now actually control a greater share of the pie in the United States than in historically unstable countries like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana. But readers protested that this was glib and unfair, and after reviewing the evidence I regretfully confess that they have a point.

That’s right: I may have wronged the banana republics.

You see, some Latin Americans were indignant at what they saw as an invidious and hurtful comparison. The truth is that Latin America has matured and become more equal in recent decades, even as the distribution in the United States has become steadily more unequal.

The best data series I could find is for Argentina. In the 1940s, the top 1 percent there controlled more than 20 percent of incomes. That was roughly double the share at that time in the United States.

Since then, we’ve reversed places. The share controlled by the top 1 percent in Argentina has fallen to a bit more than 15 percent. Meanwhile, inequality in the United States has soared to levels comparable to those in Argentina six decades ago — with 1 percent controlling 24 percent of American income in 2007.

At a time of such stunning inequality, should Congress put priority on spending $700 billion on extending the Bush tax cuts to those with incomes above $250,000 a year? Or should it extend unemployment benefits for Americans who otherwise will lose them beginning next month?

One way to examine that decision is to put aside all ethical considerations and simply look at where tax dollars will do more to stimulate the economy. There the conclusion is clear: You get much more bang for the buck putting money in the hands of unemployed people because they will promptly spend it.

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