by Henry C.K. Liu
The World's Income Distribution: Turning the Corner? by J. Bradford
DeLong is dated February 2001, a month before the official date of the
currnet recession in the US. Still, his blind optimism can only be
explained that perhaps news of the collapsed of globalization since 1997
has yet to reach his Berkley campus.
Delong claims that global income distribution has been trending towards
equality. This claim flies in the face of World Bank data on the gini
coefficient in both developed and devloping economies.
Although international markets for goods and capital have opened up
since World War II and multilateral organizations now articulate rules
and monitor the world economy, economic inequality among countries
continues to increase. Some two billion people still earn less than $2
per day. The number subsisting below the poverty line in India, nearly
400 million in 1992 (World Bank, 2000), is greater than India's total
population was at the time when independence was proclaimed in 1949.
Despite spectaular growth in the past two decades, I have calculated
that at current rates of growth, it would take China five centuries to
catch up with the US in GDP. The gap between per capita GDP in the two
economies is actually widening.
In the US, a Congressional Budget Office study shows that the average
after-tax income of the richest one percent of Americans grew by
$414,000 between 1979 and 1997, after adjusting for inflation, while
average after-tax income fell $100 for the poorest 20 percent of
Americans and grew a modest $3,400 for those exactly in the middle of
the income spectrum. In percentage terms, after-tax income grew an
average of 157% over this period for the top one percent of the
population, rose a modest 10% ¯ about one-half of one percent per year
¯ for the 20 percent of Americans in the middle of the income spectrum
and was effectively unchanged for those in the bottom fifth. In
America, the average real income of the poorest fifth fell by 3%
Still, DeLong may be able to point to, with a facade of intellectual
honesty, some statistical basis for his claim. In some economies, such
as China and India, the absolute income have risen nominally and
sufficiently to yield comforting conclusion of increased equality on a
global scale. But this is accomplished by drastic domestic increases in
income inequality. Even in absolute terms, the case for improvement is
not convincing. True, some consumers in neo-liberal market economies
tied to globalization have seen their nominal income rise. But it is
controversal to argue that the aggregate purchase power of these
consumers has increased. What has happened is that neo-liberal market
systems force a trade off in consumption. Workers the world over are
forced to reduce their take of social services and benefits, such as
healthy care, education, job security and pension, safety from crime and
environmental pollution, in exchange for meager increases in income
which they spend on electronic gadgets and designer fashion that they
themselves produce at low wages, while the rich buy cars and high rise
apartments, restaurants meals and vacation travel. The symbols of
prosperity in these emerging economy urban centers are not affordable by
99% of the population. When it comes to health services, the increase
in inequality worldwide is undeniable even to the casual observer.
Neo-liberalism asserts that inequality is the result of poverty, that as
poverty is relieved, inequality recedes. This assertion neglects the
possibility that inequality itself causes poverty, not as calculations
in a zero sum game, but as a damper on consumer demand in an
overcapacity global economy.
Globalized trade has been hailed nu neo-liberals as the solution to
inequality and poverty. Opposition to globalization is described as
misguided. Last week, as trade ministers from 142 countries met in
Doha, the capital of Qatar for the latest round of the World Trade
Organisation (WTO), the World Bank estimates that the trade barriers
maintained by the developed world cost developing countries about $100
billion a year. That's twice the amount poor countries receive in aid.
What makes it even worse is that it is goods such as textiles and
garment and shoes that are hit hardest - the very industries that employ
the poorest people in the poorest countries at the lowest wages. At the
end of the 1990s, farm subsidies accounted for almost 40% of the value
of OECD farm output, precisely the same as it was 10 years earlier. The
total value of subsidies to farmers in the rich northern countries is a
colossal $ 252 billion a year. These two items alone add up to a direct
annual transfer of $352 billion from the poor of the world to the rich.
For years the United Nations target for aid from rich countries to poor
has stood at 0.7% of their GDP. Today it stands at 0.22%.
The Harrod-Domar model of economic growth had argued that unequal
distribution of income should promote economic growth and greater
employment because the rich save more than the poor; a greater volume
of domestic savings will increase the supply of resources available for
investment; and accelerated capital formation will raise gross domestic
product and resulting incomes, a virtuous cycle feeding back into
greater savings. Thus, income inequality, even that reflecting
widespread poverty, was regarded as good for development. This is
essentially the IMF model of market fundamentalism. Notwithstanding
that this model may not be operative in a world plagued by overcapacity
from over-investment, the model neglects the fact that under globalized
finance capitalism, the savings of the rich are siphoned off to US
capital markets, draining the local economy of needed captial. This
increases the cost of capital for the poor economies which have to offer
returns drastically higher to induce their own capital to return,
putting these economies in a perpetual competitive disadvantage.
By the mid-1960s, the theory equating development with GNP growth were
already not empirically supported by evidence. But such evidence was
systemically ignored by mainstream economics because it went against the
prevailing paradigm, which seemed so intellectually logical and
ideologically correct. Moreover, it went against established economic
interests. If development was regarded as depending almost entirely upon
capital as the scarcest, and thus as the most valuable factor of
production, this justified the owners of capital receiving the largest
share of the benefits from development.
About this time (1967), President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania presented
in "The Arusha Declaration" a conceptual, not just empirical, challenge
to the prevalent mainstream view. If poor countries have little capital
and an abundance of labor, he asked, why not use whatever capital is
available to make the most abundant resource, labor, more productive --
rather than use labor, often wastefully and certainly with poor
remuneration, to make the resource they had least of, capital,
particularly foreigners' capital, more productive?
Why should the poor seek to fight their war against poverty with the
weapons of the rich? Nyerere asked pointedly.
This was dismissed as ideology rather a legitimate question by
economists serving the interest of capital. With the end of the Cold
War, an unregulated global capital market was forced on the world, with
free movement of capital to exploit globally the lowest labor cost and
weakest environmental protection. Globalization frees capital from
national borders but not workers who are still restricted by national
immigration laws. Mainstream economics never questions the dominant
capital-favoring paradigm. The case of the Asian tiger was held up as
empirical proof, until 1997, when the mirage evaporated with the Asian
financial crises. The Asian tigers, as it turned out, were merely
hunting dogs for global and mostly Western capital.
Skepticism about capital formation as the cause of economic growth is
Classical economic theory views capital formation as a consequence of
growth. It was neoclassical economics that puts capital formation as a
prerequisite for growth. This reversal distorted the neutrality of
capital, projecting capitalism from an ideologically neutral economic
process to the status of a religious dogma. The market was elevated to
the status of a sacred institution and market prices as an infallible
equalizer of values, obeying the :natural" law of marginal utility.
Market prices reflect unequal distributions of income which distort the
forces of demand and supply. The price system serves to maximize profits
rather than to maximize human value or welfare. It also fails to reflect
adequately the needs and interests of future generations who have yet to
participate in the market.
Inequality is the cause of underdevelopment. Inequality produces and
perpetuates poverty. The most harmful inequality is that between capital
and labor. It is both immoral and dishonest to claim that inequality is
receeding in the world when it is increasing everywhere.
Henry C.K. Liu
The World's Income Distribution: Turning the Corner?
J. Bradford DeLong
Twenty five years ago you could indeed powerfully argue that on a
fundamental level the world economy was not working. It was
generating better technology and more output, yes, but was it making
good use of that output to advance social welfare? It seemed as
though the answer was no, at least not for the poorer half of the
people on the globe. As time passed the world was becoming richer,
but it also became a massively more unequal place. The difference in
living standards, productivity levels, and life chances between rich
and poor parts of the world was greater in 1975 than it had been in
1925, and vastly greater in 1975 than it had been in 1800.
Since 1975, however, we have turned a very important corner. As Yale
economist T. Paul Schultz was the first (to my knowledge) to point
out, since 1975 global inequality in personal incomes has not been
rising but falling. Since 1975 the world has not only become a
richer place, but the world's poor have seen their incomes grow
faster than the world's rich. From this perspective, therefore, the
world economy has been performing a lot better in the last quarter
century than in the previous two hundred years.
Two hundred and fifty years ago the world economy was a relatively
equal place. Everyone was very poor by our standards today--even by
third world standards today. But the differences between the
standards of living of the average peasant in the Yangzi delta, the
average peasant in the Rhine valley, the average peasant in the Nile
valley, and the average peasant in the Ganges delta were small: a
factor of two at most. Malthusian population pressure kept
populations high enough to push average standards of living
worldwide close to subsistence, and more natural resources or better
technology showed up much more in higher population densities than
in higher standards of living.
Then the world changed, and the industrial revolution came.
Technological progress accelerated to become fast enough to outstrip
population growth and generate rising standards of living. As
standards of living rose, death rates fell and birth rates fell as
populations underwent the demographic transition to low fertility
and low rates of population growth even when very rich. The world
became an enormously richer place.
However, over the past two centuries the world also became a much
more unequal place. Economic growth in the industrial core vastly
outstripped economic growth at the periphery, so that the gulf
between rich and poor worldwide widened to an almost unbelievable
extent. The purchasing-power-parity gulf beween per capita income in
the United States and in India today is not a factor of two but a
factor of twenty. It is not that Indians are poorer than their
predecessors of two centuries ago: today in India almost no one dies
of famine; there is one television for every four households, and
one radio for every two households. But standards of living and
levels of material productivity in India have grown only a tenth as
fast as standards of living in the developed industrial core.
That was the pattern of worldwide growth up until 1975: increasing
wealth but also increasing inequality on a global scale. That was
the pattern that has changed since because the 1980s and 1990s were
very good decades for economic growth in the world's two
largest-population countries: India and China. As best as we can
estimate, India's real GDP per capita at constant prices has grown
at an average of four percent per year over the past two decades--a
pace at which per capita income doubles every eighteen years. As
best as we can estimate, China's real GDP per capita at constant
prices has grown at an average of seven percent per year over the
past two decades--a pace at which per capita income doubles every
decade. Today's inhabitants of China have about four times the
material standard of living of their predecessors of only two
decades ago. Nearly two and a half billion people in these two
countries have seen their material standards of living and
productivity levels increase remarkably.
China has achieved such rapid growth by dismantling the Maoist
regime of economic central planning and by focusing on building a
market economy, encouraging exports, accelerating education and
technology transfer from abroad, and also by using local governments
as decentralized engines of entrepreneurship.
India has achieved less rapid but still impressive growth by
following a policy of what can only be called "neoliberalism": try
hard to shrink the size of the state, try hard to shrink the
magnitude of the state's bureaucratic intrusions into the economy
(abandoning the requirements that investments be licensed, for
example, and that private enterprise be forbidden from entering
certain sectors), reduce tariffs, and encourage increased
international economic integration. Stanford economist Charles Jones
pointed out in the early 1990s that for most of the Nehru-Gandhi era
India's internal structure of prices had been such as to make
investments to boost economic growth very expensive, thus there was
plenty of room for policy reform not to "get prices right" but just
to get prices less wrong.
In both countries these shifts in economic policy in the past
quarter century have been extraordinarily successful, although in
China more successful than India.
It is this growth in these two countries--the transformation of
China from desperately poor to poor, and the transformation of India
from desperately poor to extremely poor--that has for the first time
in at least two centuries narrowed the proportional gap between rich
and poor. It has for the first time in at least two centuries made
the world a more equal place.
Why, then, has no one noticed? Why are our newspapers full of
reports of growing economic gulfs between rich and poor in our
world? And why are they full of reports of the crisis of a model of
economic development that does not serve the interests of the
I believe that no one has noticed--or rather, surprisingly few in
the first world have noticed--for two reasons. First, first-world
newspapers focus on the first world. Widening income and wealth gaps
between silicon plutocrats and industrial and service workers within
the first world attract much more coverage and ink than does
anything happening outside the boundaries of the industrial core.
Widening income and wealth gaps within the first world are indeed
important. But they are not the only thing worth focusing on.
Second, China and India are only two countries. At international
meetings their nearly 2.5 billion people get only two voices. There
are 49 other countries classified by the World Bank as "low income."
They, collectively, have less than half of the population of India
and China. But they have 25 times the number of delegates. And many
of these other low-income countries' economies have been doing very
badly indeed over the past two decades. Their poor performance and
their troubles thus get much more attention than the dual successes
of India and China. The typical experience of a person in a poor
developing country over the past two decades has been much better
than the typical experience of a country, because the typical person
lives in China or India.
Whether we assign China and India to their proper place plays a key
role in how we assess world economic progress over the past quarter
century. No one disputes that the liberal world market economy
delivers faster productivity and total output growth than
alternative systems. Centrally-planned states have managed to invest
more and grow faster for short periods only, and at immense and
unacceptable human cost. But the Achilles' heel of the liberal world
market economy has always been the sense that it fails massively
when it comes to distributing the fruits of better technology and
higher investment--and the steady widening of world income
inequality before the mid-1970s was powerful evidence that this
critique could not be readily dismissed.
But now it is much harder to argue that the world economy is
permanently bound to produce slower economic growth in poor
countries than in rich countries. The economic growth record of many
poor countries--nearly an entire continent's worth in Africa, many
in Latin America, some in south Asia--over the past quarter century
has been awful. The success of Indian and Chinese growth over the
past two decades makes the failure of economic growth to take hold
in other very poor countries even more heartbreaking. Most of their
people have not yet found a place on the escalator that leads to
modernity. But cast your mind back a generation and remember how
poorly India's and China's economic growth prospects were then
viewed. It should be no more difficult to spark economic growth in
the next generation for this final group of about one billion people
who have not shared significantly in world economic growth.