Recently three IMF economists published a paper arguing that redistribution is in general pro-growth (Ostry et al. 2014). The paper caused a stir as it dismisses right-wing beliefs that redistribution hurts growth. However, even people sympathetic to the ideas of inclusive growth and equality of opportunity find this finding problematic. One reason is that the authors rely on a measure of redistribution that misrepresents the true cost of redistribution in an economy. Another has to do with the omission of factors that affect positively the income growth of the poor and vulnerable, such as employment. This omission would exaggerate the importance of equality through redistribution as a source of growth and underplay the importance of structural transformation and investments directed towards sectors that use unskilled labor more intensively, and therefore have the potential to generate inclusive growth and productive employment for the poor segments of the population.
Inequality is back in the news. In his 2014 State of the Union address, U. S. President Obama lamented that, “after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.” At the global scale, Oxfam is making the same point, noting in a recent report that the richest 85 people in the world own the same amount of wealth as the 3.5 billion bottom half of the Earth's population. Perhaps more surprising, the rich and powerful CEOs jetting to Davos earlier this year seemed to finally get it: capitalism cannot survive if income and wealth become concentrated in too few hands. Fighting inequality would therefore not only be the morally correct thing to do, it would also be smart economics. And this is what a recent Staff Discussion Note from the IMF suggests: “inequality can undermine progress in health and education, cause investment-reducing political and economic instability, and undercut the social consensus required in the face of shocks, and thus tends to reduce the pace and durability of growth.”
In his post on this blog, Augusto Lopez-Claros correctly identifies illiteracy as an important factor in global inequality, and places the blame for much of the illiteracy that exists squarely at the feet of government choices. A perspective from South Africa – a country with extreme inequality – confirms that education may be the key to reducing inequality.
Not surprisingly, given their history, South Africans are obsessed with inequality. Income distribution features prominently in all political debates, in government policies and in the National Development Plan. Yet there is little understanding that the roots of this inequality lie in the labour market, particularly in the wage distribution, and that changing this distribution requires a dramatic improvement in the weak quality of most of South Africa’s schools.
There are many ways to think about income inequality. One can, for instance, look at it within the boundaries of a particular country and ask how is income distributed today among Brazil’s 198 million citizens? It is also possible to look at the average income per capita of all the countries in the world (or a region of the world) and ask: how unequal are income differences across countries at a particular moment in time? We can think of this as international inequality. One can also abstract from national boundaries and concepts of citizenship, view the world as one human family, and ask: how is income distributed among its 7 billion people? Call this global income inequality.