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The Financial Crisis of 1929 Reexamined: The Role of Soaring Inequality

Jon Wisman ()

Review of Political Economy, 2014, vol. 26, issue 3, 372-391

Abstract: The financial crisis of 1929 that triggered the Great Depression has been endlessly studied. Still there is little consensus regarding what caused it. This article claims that wage stagnation and exploding inequality fueled three dynamics that set the stage for a financial crisis. First, consumption was constrained by the smaller share of total income accruing to workers, thereby restricting investment opportunities in the real economy. Flush with greater income and wealth, the elite flooded financial markets with credit, helping keep interest rates low and encouraging the creation of new credit instruments, some of which recycled the rich's surplus assets as debt to those less well off. Second, greater inequality pressured households to find ways to consume more in order to maintain their relative social status, resulting in reduced household saving, greater household debt, and possibly longer work hours. Third, as the rich took larger shares of income and wealth, they gained relatively more command over everything, including ideology. Reducing taxes on the rich, favoring business over labor, and failing to regulate newly evolving credit instruments flowed out of this ideology.

Date: 2014
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