A Brief History of (In)equality: No Longer So Fresh at Project Syndicate

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No Longer Fresh at Project Syndicate: A Brief History of (In)equality: Here we have a very nice set of slides http://tinyurl.com/dl20160725a. It comes from a talk in Lisbon given by Barry Eichengreen, my sixth-floor office neighbor here at the Berkeley Economics Department. The slides have one of the great virtues of economic history: We, unlike other economists, are allowed to at least gesture at and even glory at the complexities of a situation. We are not forced, as other economists are, into ruthless oversimplification in pursuit of conceptual clarity—to be followed by the intellectually-faulty imperialism overloading more of an explanation of the world on a simple model then it can rightfully bear. Read MOAR at Project Syndicate

In Barry’s view, with respect to inequality there have been and are now ongoing six important first-order processes at work over the past two and a half centuries:

  1. The 1750-1850 pulling-apart of Britain’s income distribution, as the technologies and institutions of the British Industrial Revolution benefitted the urban bourgeoisie and the rural bourgeois gentry but neither the rural nor the urban proletariat http://amzn.to/2aFJAYz https://www.jstor.org/stable/2600061.

  2. The 1850-1914 great First Age of Globalization convergence of living standards and labor productivity levels in the Global North, as 50 million people left overcrowded agricultural Europe for resource-rich settler colonies and ex-colonies, and brought their institutions, their technologies, and their capital with them. Gaps of roughly 100% in wage levels between European sender and settler recipient economies shrank to 25% or so http://amzn.to/2a6aXz6.

  3. The 1750-1975 enormous pulling-apart of the global income distribution, as some parts of the world were able to take full or nearly full advantage of industrial and post industrial technologies, and others were not. Measured at purchasing power parity, America was twice as well off as China in 1800. By 1975 it was thirty times as well off http://tinyurl.com/dl20160725b.

  4. The 1870-1914 First Gilded Age rise of within-country inequality in the Global North, as entrepreneurship, industrialization, and rent seeking distributed the bulk of increases and productivity to the relatively well off and to the plutocracy http://tinyurl.com/dl20160725a.

  5. The 1930-1980 Social Democratic Age great compression of the earnings distribution in the Global North http://tinyurl.com/dl20160725c.

  6. The post 1980 divergence of outcomes within the Global North, as political economic choices lead to the coming of a Second Gilded Age to the Global North’s English-speaking portions.

I, however, think Barry’s talk is not economic-historiany enough. I would go further. I would start by adding five more first-order important factors and processes:

  1. The extraordinary post-1980 reduction in and yet stubborn persistence of remaining pools of absolute poverty. Inequality is a maldistribution of the opportunities for Isaiah Berlin’s positive liberty. But as my ex-colleague Ananya Roy points out, absolute poverty is a deprivation of Berlin’s negative liberty as well—it matters little when you are in a cage without any money whether you could theoretically buy a key http://amzn.to/2ac721f http://tinyurl.com/dl20160725d.

  2. The extraordinary nineteenth-century global shrinkage of slavery.

  3. The global reduction of other caste barriers—race, ethnicity, gender—which limit people’s opportunities to make use of whatever wealth they have.

  4. The post-1975 global-scale switch from increasing planet-wide divergence in wealth to convergence—although do note that, so far at least, all of the switch from the pre-1975 increasing divergence pattern is the result of two good growth generations in China, and one good growth generation in India.

  5. The dynamic of compound interest backed by political-economic rent-seeking identified by Thomas Piketty—with the caveat that Piketty’s logic applies not very much to our past, even our 1980-2015 past, but may well be an important part of our 2015-2100 future http://amzn.to/2ab4rSI.

Complicated, yes? A matter for careful adjustment of institutions by those with social science expertise directed by elected leaders who share the people’s value, yes?

And, most important, I would finish by adding, underlining, and emphasizing a twelfth process:

Populist mobilizations to try to deal with problems of inequality have had consequences we can call “checkered” only out of politeness. Populist mobilizations have been directed in France toward installing an Emperor, Napoleon III, and toward overthrowing democratic governments of the Third Republic. Populist mobilizations in America have been directed at excluding immigrants from China to California, at excluding immigrants from anywhere save northwest Europe, at enforcing Jim Crow. Populist mobilizations in central Europe were turned toward imperialism as the problem was redefined as that Germany and Italy were “proletarian nations” that needed bigger empires. And only Naziism could surpass in its consequences the populist mobilizations that were turned to entrenching in power Lenin’s “party of a new type” and all of its imitators. The constructive responses were fewer: Extending the franchise. Progressive income taxes. Social insurance. Building society’s physical and, more important, human capital. Opening economies. Prioritizing full employment. Encouraging migration to where ample resources and, more important, good institutions were already established. History teaches us that those have been the reactions to inequality that have made the world a better place.

Of course, history also tells us that we fail to learn what lessons history has to teach us.

August 25, 2016


Brad DeLong
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