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Drifting Toward Plutocracy: Inexorable Concentration of Capital Undermines the Drive for 'Shared Prosperity'

Christopher Colford's picture

Like seismic waves rippling outward after a tectonic shift, reverberations are roiling the economic-policy landscape after the U.S. launch of the groundbreaking new analysis by Thomas Piketty, the scholar from the Paris School of Economics whose landmark tome – “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” – has newly jolted the economics profession.

Any Washingtonian or World Bank Group staffer who somehow missed the news of Piketty’s celebrated series of speeches and seminars last week – in Washington, New York and Boston – received an unmistakable signal this week about what an important intellectual breakthrough Piketty has achieved. President Jim Yong Kim on Tuesday cited Piketty while putting the issue of economic inequality at the top of his list of priorities during his review of the Spring Meetings of the Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Noting that he was already about halfway through reading Piketty’s “Capital,” President Kim sent a clear message that the skewed global distribution of wealth, as analyzed by Piketty and emphasized by many officials at the Bank and Fund's semiannual conference, should be top-of-mind for policy-watchers at the Bank and beyond – indeed, at every institution that hopes to promote shared prosperity.

Piketty’s scholarship is now receiving widespread applause as a landmark in economic analysis, and is being recognized both for its “exhaustive fact-based research” and its sweeping historical perspective. More of a patient dissection of hard data than a political roadmap, Piketty’s book has quickly become the subject of multiple praiseworthy reviews, notably in the New York Times and the Financial Times. One usually level-headed Bloomberg View analyst, recoiling from the “rapturous reception” accorded to the book, may have gone slightly overboard this week in asserting that Piketty's insights had been greeted by American liberals with “erotic intensity.”

Predictably, Piketty's book has also quickly become the target – “Piketty Revives [Karl] Marx,” blared a Wall Street Journal headline; “Marx Rises Again,” warned the New York Times’ lonely conservative scold – of the whack-a-mole ideological purists in laissez-faire Op-Ed columns, who forever seem tempted to equate modern-day liberalism with long-gone Leninism. Eager to publish denunciations of any idea, however modest, that might justify (heaven forfend) tax increases on stratospheric income-earners and the top-fraction-of-the-One Percent, the free-market fundamentalists on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board – unabashed cheerleaders for plutocracy – have opened up one of their trademark barrages via their Op-Ed columns (“This book is less a work of economic analysis than a bizarre ideological screed”; “The professor ought to read ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Darkness at Noon’ ”). The Journal's jihad clearly aims to demean or discredit anyone who might flirt with such Piketty-style notions as restoring greater progressivity to the tax code. (Egad: Progressive taxes? Next stop: Bolshevism.)

Toward Shared Prosperity, With an Urgent New Focus on Overcoming Inequality

Christopher Colford's picture

The challenge of promoting shared prosperity was one of the unifying themes throughout last week’s Spring Meetings at the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund – the whirlwind of diplomacy and scholarship that sweeps through Washington every April and October. A remarkable new factor, however, energized this spring's event: In a vivid evolution of the policy debate, the seminars, forums and news-media coverage seemed focused, to a greater degree than ever, not just on the economic question of the creation of overall economic growth but on what has traditionally been seen as a social question: the distribution of wealth.

And in the wake of the Spring Meetings, Washington this week got a bracing reminder of how difficult it may be to build truly shared prosperity – not because our economic institutions lack the ability to achieve it, but because our political institutions may fail to summon the willpower to demand it.

A scholar whose work has taken the economics profession by storm, Thomas Piketty, captivated policy-watchers this week with the Washington launch of his landmark new work, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” Hailed as “the most important economics book of the year, and maybe of the decade” by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman of the New York Times – and praised by Martin Wolf of the Financial Times as “an extraordinarily important” work “of vast historical scope, grounded in exhaustive fact-based research”– “Capital” offers vital new insights into how wealth and power are distributed in modern economies. “Piketty has transformed our economic discourse,” asserts Krugman. “We’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.”

Piketty’s account of “inexorably rising inequality,” according to New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter, challenges many of the economics profession’s “core beliefs about the organization of market economies” – including “the belief that inequality will eventually stabilize and subside on its own, a long-held tenet of free-market capitalism.” Instead, “the economic forces concentrating more and more wealth into the hands of the fortunate few are almost sure to prevail for a very long time.”

What would our world look like, if women and men had the same opportunities?

Sarah Iqbal's picture

Imagine . . . .
 
Imagine a world where everyone could achieve his or her full economic potential.

Now look at the world around you. Half the population — women — are prevented from doing so simply because of their gender. Government policies limit women’s participation in the economy through gender-differentiated laws, unequal regulations and a business environment that does not adequately support the businesses women are concentrated in — smaller, informal and more likely to be home-based.
 
A recent study found that removing gender gaps in the labor market would increase GDP by 27 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, by 23 percent in South Asia, and by around 15 percent in the rest of the world. But where do these gender gaps come from, and how best to remove them? One way is to identify the policies, laws and institutions that constrain women and to work with governments to reform them.
 
The World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law  dataset fills a vital data gap by pinpointing where laws and regulations treat men and women differently and by highlighting opportunities for reform.

More efficient ways to transfer remittances are emerging. Are migrants and their families ready to benefit from them?

Massimo Cirasino's picture

The price of sending international remittances has reached a new record low in the first quarter of 2014. The global average cost of sending money across borders was recorded at 8.36 percent. This figure is used as a reference point for measuring progress toward achieving the so-called “5x5” objective – a goal endorsed by the G8 and G20 countries – to reduce the cost of sending remittances by five percentage points, to 5 percent, by the end of 2014.

Most indexes of international remittance costs – published by the World Bank in the new, ninth issue of the Remittance Prices Worldwide report, which was released on March 31 – indicate good progress in the market for remittances.

The global average cost is significantly lower when weighted by the volume of money that flows in each of the report’s country-to-country pairs. The weighted average cost is now down to 5.91 percent, following a further decline in the last quarter. For the first time, the weighted average has fallen below 6 percent.

Nearly one-third of the remittance-sending countries included in Remittance Prices Worldwide have now achieved a reduction of at least 3 percentage points. Those countries include such major sources of remittances as Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy and Japan. This is also the case for 39 out of 89 of the remittance-receiving countries.

Have 'Special Economic Zones' Entered the 21st Century Yet? A Tale of Two Cities

Martin Norman's picture

At the World Free Zone Convention in Izmir, Turkey, which I attended in December, an important question was asked:  Have "Special Economic Zones" entered the 21st Century?  Evidence shows that, in many ways, they have – but in many instances we are still seeing across the globe the same isolated economic enclaves with few linkages to the local market and little economy-wide impact.

More than ever, special economic zones (SEZs) are on the defensive, despite the fact that the more than 3,500 SEZs worldwide have provided employment for more than 60 million people.

I believe that two zones, in particular, can shed light on the factors of success and failure in SEZs today:  Shenzhen, China, which is almost universally considered to be a success story, and the Calabar Free Trade Zone in Nigeria, which has failed to live up to its original projections. 
 

Knowledge-Sharing Boosts Development Know-How, as Practitioners and Policymakers Meet in Mombasa

Qursum Qasim's picture

Karibu Mombasa!

With those words, the World Bank Group’s network on Financial and Private Sector Development (FPD) this week kicked off a major knowledge and learning conference on development in Mombasa, Kenya. More than 250 participants – private-sector innovators, government policymakers and development practitioners from throughout the Africa region as well as from the Bank Group’s headquarters in Washington – came together to share ideas about cutting-edge innovations in delivering services; to brainstorm with colleagues on development strategy for Africa; and to consider new tactics to help meet the practical, everyday needs of Africans.

Delivering strong value for the Bank Group’s client countries was the theme of Klaus Tilmes, the network’s Acting Vice President, as the group envisioned the impending FPD transition into two new Global Practices: Trade & Competitiveness and Finance & Markets. Inclusive growth and inclusive finance – which are vital elements in achieving the Bank Group’s mission of eliminating extreme poverty and building shared prosperity – are the twin and complementary themes through which the two new practices will aim to help their clients meet the development challenge.

Promoting inclusive growth and creating jobs – as engines of growth, as key areas of cooperation between the public and private sectors, and as the backbone of the Bank Group’s approach to promoting a world free of poverty – was the conference’s first-day theme. In this context, youth and female unemployment are priority issues for Kenya and for other African countries – from the perspective of equity, certainly, but also from the perspective of social cohesion.

Increasing the Impact of Financial Education: Approaches to Designing Financial Education Programs

Andrej Popovic's picture

Recent evaluations of a number of worldwide financial education programs reported widely varied outcomes. While some found evidence of effectiveness, others reported mixed or no evidence. Yet an increasing number of developing countries are putting financial education strategies in place or are expanding financial education programs. The quality of design of such strategies and programs is therefore crucial.

Financial education programs can be ad hoc targeted interventions, aimed at addressing specific financial education gaps, or they can be more comprehensive approaches through financial education or literacy strategies that aim to address a number of priorities. Regardless of the approach – which depends on the local context – financial education programs have a higher likelihood of greater positive impact if they are based on reliable diagnostic tools and focused on clearly defined and sequenced priorities.
 
Over the past two years, the Financial Inclusion and Consumer Protection team at the World Bank Group has conducted substantial technical and diagnostic work in the area of responsible finance. For example, we have developed methodologies for financial capability surveys and impact evaluation, and we have conducted a series of diagnostic reviews in the area of consumer protection and financial literacy on a global scale.

Competitive Cities: Which Are They, and Why Should We Care?

Alexandra M. Cech's picture

With the majority of the world’s population now urban, cities are rising in prominence. Growing attention is being paid to cities’ potential to increase incomes and create jobs – whether through financial services and electronics manufacturing in Chennai, regionally integrated manufacturing around Guangzhou, or social and physical transformation in Medellin. Less prominent cities are asking how they can attain better economic performance. Hence economic competitiveness has become a preoccupation for city leaders – by which we mean a city’s ability to spawn, expand and attract businesses that create jobs for its residents, and to enlarge the overall economic pie.
 
So, how do cities make themselves more competitive? This year, the World Bank is investing in a Competitive Cities Knowledge Base (CCKB) initiative – a joint project between the World Bank Group’s departments working on Private Sector Development and Urban Development. The project includes in-depth case studies of economically successful cities across all continents. According to our current analysis, six of the most interesting cities for this work will be Bucaramanga (Colombia), Patna (India), Bandung (Indonesia), Agadir (Morocco), Kigali (Rwanda) and Izmir (Turkey). We are in the process of confirming these conclusions before beginning each of the case studies.


 

Sri Lanka - Resplendent Island, Raring to Deliver

Parth Shri Tewari's picture


Sri Lanka conjures up different images in the minds of different people: lush green tropical canopies, steaming cups of aromatic tea, and hardworking fishermen in their dinghy boats.

For me, the country also packs enormous promise for growth and development. There is not the slightest doubt that Sri Lanka will have to come clean and deal with the aftermath of its prolonged civil war. However, at a fundamental level, there is a sense of hunger in its people to rebuild their lives and their country. The new-found peace that engulfs the population is cherished by most, and is part of dinner conversations especially with foreigners like me.

Sri Lanka already holds a strong position in certain agricultural and industrial exports, like tea or uncut diamonds. Combine this with its strategic location – situated at the crossroads of major shipping routes connecting South Asia, East Asia and the Middle East – and you have a potent combination, a promise waiting to be fulfilled.

I recently spoke at an event organized by the country’s top business newspaper, the Daily Financial Times, in partnership with the well-regarded Colombo University MBA Alumni Association. The focus of the forum was the country’s emerging six-hub strategy – Maritime, Commercial, Knowledge, Aviation, Energy and Tourism: the cornerstone of its further economic development.

The euphoria leading up to the event was palpable. The ceremonial drums and lighting of the auspicious lamp to evoke good omen created the perfect ambience. I was nervous, not because of stage fright, but because I was about to present a contrarian viewpoint to private-sector and public-sector experts, while sharing the stage with the Minister of Economic Development and the Governor of the Sri Lanka’s Central Bank. Even though my arguments were well-thought-through and fact-based, it was going to be a delicate dance, as I was about to communicate some tough arguments against the implementation of the full-blown six-hub strategy.

Partager les expériences pour renforcer l'égalité hommes-femmes en Afrique subsaharienne

Paula Tavares's picture

Le 27 Février, un atelier régional de haut niveau a débuté à Lomé (Togo), avec la participation des ministres en charge de la promotion de la femme et des représentants de 11 pays d'Afrique de l'Ouest et Centrale. Le thème principal de l’atelier était le rapport du Groupe de la Banque mondiale, « Les Femmes, l’Entreprise et le Droit 2014 : Lever les obstacles au renforcement de l’égalité hommes-femmes ». Un dîner de bienvenue précédant l'ouverture officielle de l'événement a révélé le dynamisme des ministres participants - toutes des femmes -, de même que les réalités et enjeux communs à leurs nations. La plupart se réunissaient pour la première fois et cette occasion unique a permis le partage des expériences et des points de vue sur les lois, les normes culturelles et les rôles traditionnels au sein de la famille.

Les discours d'ouverture de l'atelier reflètent bien l'importance de l'égalité hommes-femmes pour la région. En accueillant l'événement, Monsieur Hervé Assah, Représentant Résident de la Banque mondiale au Togo, a noté que : « Sous-investir dans le capital humain que constituent les femmes est un véritable frein à la réduction de la pauvreté et limite considérablement les perspectives de développement sur le plan économique et social ». Ces préoccupations ont été reprises par la Ministre de l'Action Sociale, de la Promotion de la Femme et de l'Alphabétisation du Togo, Mme Dédé Ahoéfa Ekoué, qui a souligné l'importance de la participation des femmes dans la société et dans l'économie, à la fois au Togo et dans le monde. Le ton était donc donné pour cet événement de deux jours, qui visait à la fois à mettre en évidence les récentes réformes adoptées par les pays de la région et à promouvoir le partage d'expériences, les défis et les bonnes pratiques entre les participants pour promouvoir l'inclusion économique des femmes.

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