Raghuram Rajan in Project Syndicate:
Before the recent financial crisis, politicians on both sides of the aisle in the United States egged on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant government-backed mortgage agencies, to support low-income lending in their constituencies. There was a deeper concern behind this newly discovered passion for housing for the poor: growing income inequality.
Since the 1970’s, wages for workers at the 90th percentile of the wage distribution in the US –such as office managers – have grown much faster than wages for the median worker (at the 50th percentile), such as factory workers and office assistants. A number of factors are responsible for the growth in the 90/50 differential.
Perhaps the most important is that technological progress in the US requires the labor force to have ever greater skills. A high school diploma was sufficient for office workers 40 years ago, whereas an undergraduate degree is barely sufficient today. But the education system has been unable to provide enough of the labor force with the necessary education. The reasons range from indifferent nutrition, socialization, and early-childhood learning to dysfunctional primary and secondary schools that leave too many Americans unprepared for college.
The everyday consequence for the middle class is a stagnant paycheck and growing job insecurity. Politicians feel their constituents’ pain, but it is hard to improve the quality of education, for improvement requires real and effective policy change in an area where too many vested interests favor the status quo.
Moreover, any change will require years to take effect, and therefore will not address the electorate’s current anxiety. Thus, politicians have looked for other, quicker ways to mollify their constituents. We have long understood that it is not income that matters, but consumption. A smart or cynical politician would see that if somehow middle-class households’ consumption kept up, if they could afford a new car every few years and the occasional exotic holiday, perhaps they would pay less attention to their stagnant paychecks.
Therefore, the political response to rising inequality – whether carefully planned or the path of least resistance – was to expand lending to households, especially low-income households.