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Global Inequality

Where has the global movement against inequality got to, and what happens next?

Duncan Green's picture

Katy Wright, Oxfam's head of Global External AffairsKaty Wright, Oxfam’s Head of Global External Affairs, stands back and assesses its campaign on inequality.

The most frequent of the Frequently Asked Questions I’ve heard in response to Even it Up, Oxfam’s inequality campaign is “how equal do you think we should be?”

It’s an interesting response to the news that just 80 people now own the same wealth as half the world’s population put together, and the best answer was that given by Joe Stiglitz to a group of UN ambassadors: “I think we have a way to go before we worry about that.”

The Inequality BusSo how far do we have to go, exactly? The good news is that inequality is no longer just the concern of a small number of economists, trades unions and social justice campaigners. It’s now on the agenda for the international elite.

That partly reflects a growing realisation that inequality may be a problem for us all, not just those at the bottom. The Spirit Level  raised questions about the impact of inequality on societies, and the rise of Occupy pointed to a growing political concern.

More recently, research papers from the IMF have demonstrated extreme inequality is at odds with stable economic growth, and that redistribution is not bad for growth. Significantly, this shift in focus from the IMF has been driven by Christine Lagarde. To the outside world, the IMF now officially cares about inequality, as do Andy Haldane at the Bank of England, Donald Kaberuka (outgoing head of the African Development Bank), and Alicia Barcena of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, to name a few.

The Ebenezer Scrooge Economy: The Dickensian Divide Between Concentrated Wealth and Intensifying Poverty

Christopher Colford's picture

Source: Branko Milanovic

If you thought the wealth gap was vast between the miser Ebenezer Scrooge and the oppressed Bob Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol,” then lend a Christmastime thought for the desperate Dickensian divide that’s now afflicting the global economy.

The biggest economic-policy issue of 2014 has certainly been the outpouring of alarm about the chronically intensifying divide between wealth and poverty – an uproar that has had a transformational effect on the worldwide debate on economic policy. As a seminar at the Center for Global Development recently discussed, the precise statistics on inequality (and the perception of inequality) are subtle, with many nuances of measurement (whether data should be derived, for example, from tax-return filings or from household surveys). Yet this year’s irrefutable interpretation among economists and business leaders has been driven by a landmark of economic scholarship: the bombshell book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty. “Capital” has forced economists, policymakers and scholars to reconsider the inexorable trends that are driving the modern-day economy toward an ever-more-intense concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands.

No wonder Piketty’s “Capital” was hailed as the Financial Times/McKinsey “Business Book of the Year.” Piketty’s analysis has fundamentally changed the parameters of the public-policy debate, and many of its ideas challenge conventional economic theory.

To explore the implications of the alarming trends in income and wealth inequality, there’s no analyst more insightful than Branko Milanovic, the former World Bank economist who is now a scholar at the LIS Center (working on the authoritative Luxembourg Income Study) at the City University of New York. Milanovic has justly won acclaim for his work, “The Haves and the Have-Nots,” which pioneered the territory now being explored by Piketty.

Confirming the trends that Piketty identified in “Capital” – and taking those insights one significant step further, to measure the wealth gaps both within countries and between countries – Milanovic recently led a compelling CGD seminar on “Winners and Losers of Globalization: Political Implications of Inequality.”

The seminar’s sobering conclusion: If you think the wealth-and-incomes gap is painful now, just wait a decade or two. If allowed to go unattended, the widening economic divide will soon become a dangerous social chasm. That data-driven projection is leading many analysts to dread that inequality (whether between countries or within the same country) threatens topose a stark challenge to social stability, and even to the survival of democracy.

The breakthtaking “a-ha!” moment of Milanovic’s CGD presentation was the chart (see the illustration, above) – praised as "the Chart of the Century" by seminar chairman Michael Clemens of CGD and discussant Laurence Chandy of the Brookings Institution – that plotted-out the pattern of how globalization has exerted relentless downward pressure on the incomes of the global upper-middle class, which roughly corresponds to the Western lower-middle class.

Globalization has helped promote the prosperity of skilled workers in developing nations, Milanovic explained, with the dramatic surge of China’s economy being the greatest driver of global “convergence.” Yet globalization has had an undeniable downward effect on the wealth and incomes of low- and medium-skilled workers in developed, industrialized nations. That certainly helps explain the angry mood among voters in Western Europe and North America, whose overall incomes and wealth have been stagnating for perhaps 40 years.

At the same time – reinforcing the significance of Piketty’s iconic formula that r>g (that the returns on capital are destined to be greater than overall economic growth) – a vast proportion of the world’s wealth has been concentrated in just the very top echelons of society. Milanovic’s meticulous data (see the illustration, below) confirm the extreme concentration of global absolute gains in income, from 1988 to 2008, in the top 5 percent of the world’s income distribution. Rigorous empirical evidence from multiple sources indeed confirms that most of the global gains in wealth have accrued to the already-vastly-wealthy top One Percent. The data on increasing socioeconomic stratification are, by now, so well-established that only the predictable claque of free-market absolutists and dogmatic denierscling (with increasing desperation) to the notion that the inequality gap is merely a myth.

Source: Branko Milanovic

Reinforcing Milanovic’s analysis, yet another well-documented study – this time, by the OECD– asserted this month that economic inequality is intensifying within the world’s developed nations. That within-country trend accompanies the yawning inequality gap between developed and developing economies. The OECD thus joined the chorus that includes the World Bank Group, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the U.S. Federal Reserve System in sounding the alarm about the way that income and wealth disparities are becoming socially explosive. Even on Wall Street, many pragmatists are warning with increasing urgency that “too much inequality can undermine growth.”

Economic inequality – both the perception and the reality of the egregious global gap – has surely been the key economic theme of 2014, and Milanovic’s CGD presentation capped the year with what the seminar-goers recognized as authoritative data distilled into “the Chart of the Century.” Milanovic thus echoed warnings by National Economic Council chairman Jason Furman and Canadian Member of Parliament Chrystia Freeland (both of whom have led recent World Bank seminars), who cautioned Washington policymakers about the potential dangers of runaway inequality.

Energized by Milanovic’s latest calculations and analysis, scholars and development practitioners at the World Bank Group and beyond should approach 2015 with a renewed commitment to building prosperity that is truly shared – and that avoids the potential social explosion that might await many economies if runaway inequality is allowed to continue unchecked.


Of globalization’s promises and perils

Swati Mishra's picture

As a student in 2003, I had an opportunity to interview a social activist about food security in India. Among other things, she blamed globalization for the slow demise of the local food industry. She went a step further and labeled globalization as depriving people (small scale farmers and workers) of their livelihoods. Her solution for India to become a leader in the food industry was by staying local, small, and forming cooperatives rather than fostering large agribusiness. This was quite a contrasting view at a time when India was starting to see benefits from its economic liberalization. In retrospect, I was interviewing someone who was ahead of a trend where activists were increasingly wary about the downsides of globalization and its impact on development.

Since then, globalization has sped up and contentious debates over who ultimately benefits have grown. And just as finance ministers from various countries were converging on Washington to discuss vital issues like extreme poverty, global macroeconomic prospects, jobs creation, and inclusive growth, revisiting globalization seemed germane to tackling development challenges.

Milanovic on Inequality (Continued): Implications for Politics, Alliances and Migration

Duncan Green's picture

In which, following on yesterday’s post,  Ricardo Fuentes and I decide to carry on chatting about the new Milanovic paper on inequality.

Duncan: Great intro to the Milanovic paper, Ricardo, but there’s plenty more juice to be had, I think. First let’s take a closer look at the graph you put up of change in global real income 1988-2008 (below). As well as the spike of the top 1% (and do we know whether the financial crisis has moderated or amplified the spike?), the bit that jumps out at me is the stagnation of incomes above the 75th percentile. For that portion of the world’s population in the top quarter of the income bracket, but below the super-rich 1%, the last 20 years have been pretty terrible.

The Real Winners and Losers of Globalization

Branko Milanovic's picture

It is generally thought that two groups are the big winners of the past two decades of globalization: the very rich, and the middle classes of emerging market economies.

The statistical evidence for this has been cobbled together from a number of disparate sources. The evidence includes high GDP growth in emerging market economies, strong income gains recorded for those at the top of the income pyramid in the United States and other advanced economies, as well as what seems to be the emergence of “a global middle class” and casual observations of the rising affluence of Chinese and Indians.

A Review of the analytical income classification

Shaida Badiee's picture

The World Bank’s classification of economies as low-, lower-middle-, upper-middle-, or high-income has a long history. Over the years these groupings have provided a useful way of summarizing trends across a wide array of development indicators. Although the income classification is sometimes confused with the World Bank’s operational guidelines, which set lending terms and are determined only in part by average income, the classification is provided purely for analytical convenience and has no official status.

Born Equal? How reducing inequality could give our children a better future

Núria Molina-Gallart's picture

As debates on the post-2015 framework gear up, a strong view is emerging that the next development framework must aim at finishing the job that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) started at the beginning of the 2000s. There are many lessons that the development community has learnt about what worked and what should be improved this time around. A new report by Save the Children published today on the occasion of the second meeting of the United Nations High Level Panel on post-2015 in London, Born Equal: How reducing inequality could give our children a better future, argues that inequality is one of the MDGs’ blind spots that needs to be addressed in the next development framework to accelerate progress towards the MDGs and to deliver the promise to eradicate extreme poverty.

World Food Day, Global Inequality, and Other Links

Swati Mishra's picture

Rising food prices, famine in the horn of Africa, climate change, seasonal hunger, uncertainty about the future of the global food system. 
World Food Day and Blog action Day are on October 16, and one hopes this day will inspire many ideas and innovations to tackle the World’s food security challenges. One such idea is - ‘small is beautiful’. Duncan Green explains why small farmers are actually beneficial when it comes to agriculture. One obvious reason is “it puts food into circulation and at the same time boosts the income of some of the poorest people on the planet”. Read his post to know more. Also, revisit the post "Seasonal Hunger" on this blog to know about the specific policy actions that can end the occurrence of this cycle.