New York • To Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, the strange behavior of the economy can be traced to the growing gap between wealthy Americans and everyone else. In his new book, "The Price of Inequality," he connects surging student loan debt, the real-estate bubble and many of the country's other problems to greater inequality.
Stiglitz has taught at Yale, Oxford and MIT. He served on President Bill Clinton's council of economic advisers, then left the White House for the World Bank, where he was the chief economist. He's now a professor at Columbia University.
Stiglitz warned about worrying over government debt and argued that a wider income gap leads to a weaker economy.
Following are excerpts, edited for space and clarity.
Q The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are no longer in the news, but you make the case that income inequality is more important than ever. How so?
A Because it's getting worse. Look at the recent Federal Reserve numbers. Median wealth fell 40 percent from 2007 to 2010, bringing it back to where it was in the early '90s. For two decades, all the increase in the country's wealth, which was enormous, went to the people at the very top.
It may have been a prosperous two decades. But it wasn't like we all shared in this prosperity.
The financial crisis really made this easy to understand. Inequality has always been justified on the grounds that those at the top contributed more to the economy "the job creators."
Then came 2008 and 2009, and you saw these guys who brought the economy to the brink of ruin walking off with hundreds of millions of dollars. And you couldn't justify that in terms of contribution to society.
The myth had been sold to people, and all of a sudden it was apparent to everybody that it was a lie.
Mitt Romney has called concerns about inequality the "politics of envy." Well, that's wrong. Envy would be saying, "He's doing so much better than me. I'm jealous." This is: "Why is he getting so much money, and he brought us to the brink of ruin?" And those who worked hard are the ones ruined. It's a question of fairness.
Q Markets aren't meant to be fair. As long as we have markets, there are going to be winners and losers. What's wrong with that?
A I'm not arguing for the elimination of inequality. But the extreme that we've reached is really bad. Particularly the way it's created. We could have a more equal society and a more efficient, stable, higher-growing economy. That's really the "so what." Even if you don't have any moral values and you just want to maximize GDP growth, this level of inequality is bad.
It's not just the unfairness. The point is that we're paying a high price. The story we were told was that inequality was good for our economy. I'm telling a different story, that this level of inequality is bad for our economy.
Q Economic growth is slowing again. Unemployment seems to be stuck above 8 percent. Is that the result of high debts or slower spending?
A The fundamental problem is not government debt. Over the past few years, the budget deficit has been caused by low growth. If we focus on growth, then we get growth, and our deficit will go down. If we just focus on the deficit, we're not going to get anywhere.
This deficit fetishism is killing our economy. And you know what? This is linked to inequality. If we go into austerity, that will lead to higher unemployment and will increase inequality. Wages go down, aggregate demand goes down, wealth goes down.
Q What's the answer, then? Raising taxes on wealthy people can't possibly solve all the problems you mention.
A No, there's no magic bullet. But there are other ways of doing things. Just to pick one, look at how we finance higher education. Right now, we have this predatory lending system by our banks with no relief from bankruptcy. In some fundamental ways, it's really evil and oppressive. Parents that co-sign student loans now find out they can't discharge those loans, even in bankruptcy.
Education is so important, but there are so many barriers. Just 8 percent of those students in the most selective colleges come from the bottom half of the income scale. Eight percent! They can't get in because they don't get as good an education in elementary and high schools. Education is the vehicle for social mobility. It's how we restore the American dream.