Social Inequality Causes Economic Crashes
by Washington’s Blog
February 14, 2011
John Kenneth Galbraith and Marriner Eccles Explained 50 Years Ago that Inequality Causes Crashes
In his definitive study of the Great Depression, The Great Crash, 1929, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote:
There seems little question that in 1929, modifying a famous cliche, the economy was fundamentally unsound. This is a circumstance of first-rate importance. Many things were wrong, but five weaknesses seem to have had an especially intimate bearing on the ensuing disaster. They are:
(1) The bad distribution of income. In 1929 the rich were indubitable rich. The figures are not entirely satisfactory, but it seems certain that the five per cent of the population with the highest incomes in that year received approximately one-third of all income. The proportion of personal income received in the form of interest, dividends, and rent – the income, broadly speaking, of the well-to-do – was about twice as great as in the years following the Second World War.
This highly unequal income distribution meant that the economy was dependent on a high level of investment or a high level of luxury consumer spending or both. The rich cannot buy great quantities of bread. If they are to dispose of what they receive it must be on luxuries or by way of investment in new plants and new projects. Both investment and luxury spending are subject, inevitably, to more erratic influences and to wider fluctuations than the bread and rent outlays of the $25-week workman. This high bracket spending and investment was especially susceptible, one may assume, to the crushing news from the stock market in October 1929.
Galbraith wrote that in 1954.