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Public Sector and Governance

Only Ebenezer Scrooge Could Applaud Such Stark Inequality; The Dickensian Divide of Intensifying Wealth and 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 acclaimed 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 to pose 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) – hailed by seminar chairman Michael Clemens and discussant Laurence Chandy as “the Chart of the Century” – 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 deniers cling (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.”

How Well did We Forecast 2014?

Shanta Devarajan's picture

A year ago, we polled Future Development bloggers for predictions on the coming year (2014).  Looking back, we find that many unforeseen (and possibly unforeseeable) events had major economic impact. 

We missed the developments in Ukraine and Russia, the spread of the Islamic State in Iraq, the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, the collapse in oil prices and their attendant effects on economic growth.  At the same time, we picked the winner of the soccer World Cup, and got many of the technology trends right. Perhaps economists are better at predicting non-economic events.

Here’s the scorecard on the seven predictions made:
 

Government by numbers: How can we solve the gaming problem?

Willy McCourt's picture

Riccardo Ghinelli under creative commons

In my last blog post, I showed that while governments are increasingly using the technology to demonstrate that services are improving, their efforts risk being undermined by “gaming” – in other words, fiddling the performance statistics to make things look better than they really are.
 
We focused on the problem in the UK.  In this blog, I look at what the UK has and hasn’t done to address the problem, and what we can learn from that. 

Government by numbers: How big a problem is gaming?

Willy McCourt's picture

Brian Talbots Flickr under creative commons

Governments are under pressure to show their ever more educated and informed citizens that schools, hospitals and other public services are getting better. Traditionally, they have done that by spending money and building things: look, a brand new hospital! Of course, everybody knows that there is more to service quality than dollars, bricks and mortar. But at least we can see and touch bricks and mortar.  How can we put a finger on service quality? 

Can Pay for Performance Provide the Wrong Incentives?

Tito Cordella's picture

Office workers in a meeting The use of technology to improve productivity continues to evolve. In Modern Times, Tramp had to keep up with the crazy pace of the assembly line; in contemporary public administrations, employees have to comply with what is mandated by monitoring and reporting technologies; in today’s World Bank — I’m exaggerating a bit — we are asked to record everything we do in the multiple Bank systems. A legitimate question to ask is whether the reliance on monitoring and reporting technologies improves service delivery or, instead, whether it forces motivated civil servants or employees to waste time “feeding the beast”.

Here is a model Indian States can implement to ensure smooth flow of medical supplies to health facilities

Shanker Lal's picture
Photo: John Isaac / World Bank

Though the Indian government has steadily increased funding for its health sector, per capita allocation is still low; reform is thus critical to effectively utilize the available budget.

​The underlying question is: Given a set of resources, how do you procure goods in a way that achieves value for money and maximum efficiency?

In India, procurement of health sector goods has been a major concern for the government. Drugs and medical supplies are not procured and distributed in time, and this interruption in the delivery of services in health facilities affect the general population’s health outcomes.

The Impact of Falling Oil Prices

Birgit Hansl's picture

 Notes from Russia and Kazakhstan

Petrol tanker driving along the rural road in Russia Oil prices tumbled dramatically since July when they reached US$115 per barrel to below US$65 per barrel in recent days. Despite the sharp price decline, OPEC signaled no intention to cut production.  The oil market remains well-supplied and there is demand-driven pressure on oil prices, following weak economic data from the Euro zone and a number of emerging economies, including Turkey, Brazil, Russia, and China which means that the oil price could fall even further and remain low for longer.

The economic prospects of many resource abundant economies are tied to oil prices. Russia and Kazakhstan are two extreme cases. Such dependency translates into volatility of export receipts and government revenues and, depending on the exchange regime, to a decline in the national currency. For Russia, oil and gas provide about 70 percent of its exports and 50 percent of its federal budget. In Kazakhstan, oil revenues constitute about half of government’s total revenues and 45 percent of foreign exchange earnings.

Lessons from Reducing Energy Subsidies

Mamta Murthi's picture

A view from Central Europe and the Baltics

Energy subsidies are common throughout the world.  The bulk of subsidies are paid in the Middle East and North Africa where my colleague, Shanta Devarajan, has eloquently blogged about their corrosive impact on economic growth, on employment, on human health and on water conservation.  Where I sit, in Central Europe, many countries are in the process of liberalizing their market for energy and bringing subsidies to an end.  What lessons does the experience of energy price liberation in this group of countries offer to their neighbors in the south?  Based on the work of my colleagues, Nistha Sinha and Caterina Ruggieri, I would draw five lessons.

Recovering stolen assets on the road to ending impunity

Jean Pesme's picture
#breakthechian
Source: UN


On International Anti-corruption Day 2014, one of the issues we at the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative want to illustrate - is how recovering stolen assets helps fight corruption and end impunity.

On International Anti-Corruption Day, those involved in this effort, gather to express a shared commitment to take action, and to pledge - in the words of this year’s Twitter hashtag – to #breakthechain, against all forms of corruption - from petty bribes to grand corruption.   

Here at the World Bank, we are hosting the ‘International Corruption Hunters Alliance’. The Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, spoke out strongly, highlighting the malignant effects of corruption as, ‘an abuse of power; the pursuit of money or influence at the expense of society as a whole’.

Does open government need accountability institutions?

Jeff Thindwa's picture



Accountability Institutions – such as Information Commissions, Ombudsman and Supreme Audit Institutions – play a fundamental role in advancing government openness. Initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership should deepen engagement with them.

Transparency and accountability are key priorities of the Open Government movement. They are also areas where accountability institutions can have real impact. Information Commissions play a crucial role in guaranteeing the right to information. Ombudsman institutions handle citizen complaints about public administration and help protect citizen rights. They have a crucial mediation function that fosters reciprocal engagement of the citizen and state. Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) are also a critical part of the national accountability architecture, with a mandate to “watch over” government accounts, operations, and performance, through external auditing.


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