FT Op-Ed: Debt is capitalism’s dirty little secret
The answer is capitalism’s dirty little secret: excessive lending was the only way to maintain the living standards of the vast bulk of the population at a time when wealth was being concentrated in the hands of an elite.
The amount by which the elite has benefited is startling, and illustrates the problem with lightly regulated free markets: the rich get much richer while the rest do not get richer at all. According to Société Générale economists, the inflation-adjusted income of the highest-paid fifth of US earners has risen by 60 per cent since 1970, while it has fallen by more than 10 per cent for the rest. As was recently pointed out in the New York Review of Books, the Walton family, of Wal-Mart fame, is wealthier than the bottom third of the US population put together – about 100m people. These are staggering statistics, confirmed by measures such as the US and UK’s ever-rising Gini coefficients, which estimate income disparity. Another way of putting this is that the share of profits in gross domestic product is at a 100-year high, or was until very recently.
Put simply, the benefits of economic growth have gone into the pockets of plutocrats rather than the bulk of the population. So why has there been no revolution? Because there was a solution: debt. If you couldn’t earn it, you could borrow it.