The Economist: The rich and the rest
What to do (and not do) about inequality.
... In fact, much of the recent hand-wringing about widening inequality is based on sloppy thinking. The old Davos consensus of boosting growth and combating poverty is still a better guide to good policy. Rather than a sweeping assault on inequality itself, policymakers would do better to take on the market distortions that often lie behind the most galling income gaps, and which also impede economic growth.
Begin with the facts about inequality. Globally, the gap between the rich and the poor has actually been narrowing, as poorer countries are growing faster. Nor is there a monolithic trend within countries (see article). In Latin America, long home to the world’s most unequal societies, many countries—including the biggest, Brazil—have become a bit more equal, as governments have boosted the incomes of the poor with fast growth and an overhaul of public spending to improve the social safety-net (but not by raising tax rates for the rich).
The gap between rich and poor has risen in other emerging economies (notably China and India) as well as in many rich countries (especially America, but also in places with a reputation for being more egalitarian, such as Germany). But the reasons for this differ. In China inequality has a lot to do with the hukou system of residency permits, which limits internal migration to the towns; by some measures inequality has peaked as rural labour becomes more scarce. In America income inequality began to widen in the 1980s largely because the poor fell behind those in the middle. More recently, the shift has been overwhelmingly due to a rise in the share of income going to the very top—the highest 1% of earners and above—particularly those working in the financial sector. Many Americans are seeing their living standards stagnate, but the gap between most of them has not changed all that much.
The links between inequality and the ills attributed to it are often weak. ...
...Viewed from this perspective, the right way to combat inequality and increase mobility is clear. First, governments need to keep their focus on pushing up the bottom and middle rather than dragging down the top: investing in (and removing barriers to) education, abolishing rules that prevent the able from getting ahead and refocusing government spending on those that need it most. Oddly, the urgency of these kinds of reform is greatest in rich countries, where prospects for the less-skilled are stagnant or falling. Second, governments should get rid of rigged rules and subsidies that favour specific industries or insiders. Forcing banks to hold more capital and pay for their implicit government safety-net is the best way to slim Wall Street’s chubbier felines. In the emerging world there should be a far more vigorous assault on monopolies and a renewed commitment to reducing global trade barriers—for nothing boosts competition and loosens social barriers better than freer commerce.
Such reforms would not narrow all income disparities: in a freer world skill and intellect would still be rewarded, in some cases magnificently well. But the reforms would strike at the most pernicious, unfair sorts of income disparity and allow more people to move upwards. They would also boost growth and leave the world economy more stable. If the Davos elites are worried about the gap between the rich and the rest, this is the route they should follow.
I will also reprise this graph from Parametric estimations of the world distribution of income. The Gini Coefficient is a measure of inequality where 1.00 equals perfect inequality and 0.00 equals perfect equality.