NEW YORK — What's wrong with the U.S. economy?
Growth comes in fits and starts. Unemployment has been more than 8 percent for three and a half years. Cutting taxes and interest rates hasn't worked, at least not enough.
To Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, the economy's strange behavior 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.
When the rich keep getting richer, he says, the costs pile up. For instance, it's easier to climb up from poverty in Britain and Canada than in the U.S.
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.
Below are excerpts from an interview with The Associated Press, edited for 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.
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.
Q: You argue that it's making our economy grow more slowly and connect it to "rent- seeking." That's an economist's term. Can you explain it in layman's terms?
A: Some people get an income from working, and some people get an income just because they own a resource. Their income isn't the result of effort. They're getting a larger share of the pie instead of making the pie bigger. In fact, they're making it smaller.
Q: So, for example, I put a toll booth at a busy intersection and keep all the money for myself.
A: That's right. You just collect the money. You're not adding anything. It's often used when we talk about oil-rich countries. The oil is there, and everybody fights over the spoils. The result is that those societies tend to do very badly because they spend all their energy fighting over the pile of dollars rather than making the pile of dollars bigger. They're trying to get a larger share of the rent.
Q: Where do you see this in the U.S.? Can you point to some specific examples?
A: You see it with oil and natural resources companies and their mineral leases and timber leases. Banks engaged in predatory lending. Visa and MasterCard just settled for $7 billion for anticompetitive behavior. They were charging merchants more money because they have monopoly power.
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.