A short history of inequality

Alacevich M., Soci A., 2017, A Short History of Inequality, Agenda Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 232p.

I have purchased this book in the hall leading to a Regional Studies Association conference in London last year. The promising title and the short format (232 pages including a 50-page appendix on the measures of inequality) suggested a quick read and a useful textbook to keep at reach for future reference. It has kept its promises and also delivered some surprises.

The first surprise is that the book is more a history of the economics of inequality than a history of inequality itself. Indeed, the title suggests that the reader will find at some point a collection of historical evolutions of inequality indices. There are some of such graphs, but they do no make the core of this book. Instead, the place of inequality within economics as a discipline and its main contributors are exposed and explained. This history of economics includes accounts of how measures of inequality came about and how they were used to support theories about the social distribution of economic resources. This approach can be explained by the profile of one of the authors, Michele Alacevich, who is an Associate Professor of Economic History and the History of Economic Thought at the University of Bologna. His collaboration with Anna Soci, Professor of Economics at the University of Bologna, dates back from their concomittant stay at Columbia University  in the early 2010s.

The second surprise of the book is an additional focus on dialectic relationships (inequality and globalisation in chapter four, inequality and democracy in chapter five) which brings insightful reflexions about the causes and consequences of inequality, even though it is sometimes detached from the main narrative. The biggest contribution of this book in my perspective is its general information on the history of inequality studies (for example the biographies of Lorenz, Pareto and Gini which were new to me) as well as the wide (yet digest) presentation of how inequality can be approached, in terms of scales (global, international and national accounts), of content (income, wealth, production, capabilities) and of rationale (equity, welfare, democracy). Obviously, some aspects and discussions (especially on data sources) are missing but the authors have compensated this by deeper analyses in the dialectic chapters, so that the small book does not cover only superficial categories. I think all in all, the book falls short of telling the history of inequality (which is fine since other books had done it already anyway), yet it provides an original and reflexive contribution well worth the (quick) read.

 


 

The book is structured around an introduction, six chapters and an appendix. The introduction and chapter one set the frame and incentives for studying inequality, recalling why it is a social issue that economists should address. Chapter two and three present how and why inequality has been sidetracked from mainstream economics until very recently, because of its object (individuals) and methods (distributional statistics). Chapter four deals with inequality and globalization, and chapter five with inequality and democracy. The last chapter opens on the future of inequality, including sectoral politicies expected to reduce economic inequalities. The appendix details the statistics of inequality through a more in-depth presentation of the main measures of inequality (Gini, Theil, P10/P90, etc.).

 

As the introduction recalls, despite the sizeable place that economics of inequality hold in the public debate in recent years, it has long been an issue relegated to the side of mainstream economics, which were far more interested in the dynamics of growth and production than in the individual distribution of income and wealth. This is especially true for early industrialised countries. “Whereas economic inequality per se cannot be said to be a new issue, its catalytic power in terms of political discourse is indeed novel. […] While we have been used to consider inequality as a basic characteristic of many less developed countries (except perhaps the very poor countries, whose low inequality is mainly attributable to everybody being poor), only in recent years have pundits, the economics profession at large, and public opinion awakened to the fact that inequality has become a fundamental problem in countries that have long considered themselves immune from it – mainly the advanced countries” (p.4). What has changed to push the issue of inequality to the forefront of political economics, according to the authors, is the post-crisis increase of domestic (within-country) inequality in ‘advanced economies’ as well as a bigger focus on individuals (in part through democracy) and their capabilities. The  processes of globalisation and democratisation are intertwined with inequality at various geographical scales, and according to the authors: “Wether we succeed in giving globalization a human face and keeping democracy a credible and truly representative political system will depend in greatest part on how we resolve the problem of inequality” (p.10).

The first chapter is entitled “Why inequality is the real issue”. It aims to show how inequality differs from the related issues of poverty and growth, and why it should have precedence in this book. This take opposes the views of scholars like Nozick, Toqueville and Mc Closkey, for whom poverty is the real issue to resolve, for example by fostering a general enrichment of society (of the like of industrialisation), regardless of the further enrichment of the already rich. By contrast, the authors argue that the gap between rich and poor is important itself, on an economic as well as political level, because “while poverty may be smoothed as a nonantagonistic question, inequality will always, sooner or later, trigger a discussion about the structure of power and social disparities in a given society” (p.15). In this first chapter, inequality is also related to its counterpart: equality, a much bigger subject in social philosophy and the first contributors to classical economics, whereas it became a strong deterrent in neoclassical economics, increasing the acceptability (and even desirability) of inequality in this body of work. For the authors, inequality is everything but a desirable outcome: “not only does structural inequality undermine the functioning of global and national economic systems, its disruptive power in the economic sphere also merges with other dimensions of inequality in a society, such as racial and gender inequality; inequality in education, opportunities, and other social attributes such as class and status; inequality in life expectancy; and, in less lucky countries, inequality in access to much more basic necessities, such as food and potable water. These inequalities reinforce each other (though not always in a linear ways) to produce visious circles, through a process called “cumulative causation”, that entrap most disadvantaged individuals or groups and make them increasingly behind the privileged ones. Social scientists have insisted on ‘self-reinforcing mechanisms’, ‘critical thresholds’, ‘dysfunctional institutions’ and other forces that perpetuate existing stratifications and work against social mobility” (p.22). One further argument against inequality in this chapter is that “Inequality deeply penetrates the social fabric, shapes it, and remains engrained in it, possibly for generations. Inequality, in other words, is inherited. […] It imperils the mechanisms of a healthy democracy” (p.23-4).

In view of this opposition of arguments, the second chapter contextualises “the long neglect of inequality” within the history of economic thought. The inter-individual inequality of wealth and income has been neglected in mainstream economics until recently for three reasons according to the authors. Firstly, “whereas a theory of personal income and wealth distribution, which is vital to the study of inequality, has been prominently absent from the economic literature, another kind of distribution has played a very important role, name functional distribution. […] Thus the distribution of production, central to the classical economic thought, is ‘functional’ since it pertains to the distribution of the product to the groups that contribute to production.” (p.27-31). The groups in question (workers and capitalists, or producers and consumers) are taken as homogenous units, leading the way to the ‘representative agent’ of neoclassical economics. This way of thinking excludes the possibility and necessity for a “complete theory of personal distribution because there are no person” (p.36). Secondly, the lives of individuals were not viewed as legitimate objects of economic analysis until recently. “Even during the French Revolution, the bourgeois favored political equality but not social or economic equality. The time was not ripe for a social revolution that would make the individual its center. Much time would elapse before the individual became the true focus of societal studies” (p.32-3). Thirdly, the study of inequality to inform the opportunity of state intervention lies on normative grounds, and presupposes the adoption of an idea of social justice, which mainstream economics (including the New Welfare doctrine) have rejected, focusing instead on “the problem of efficient allocation of resources in the form of so-called Pareto optimality, according to which an allocation is Pareto optimal whenever it cannot be reorganized so to improved the condition (utility) of somebody without worsening that of other” (p.38). Finally, the authors note that as a result, a complete and consistant theory of the personal distribution of income does not exist in the discipline. “Regrettably, at least for the construction of a theory of size distribution of revenues, twentieth-century economics has been occupied in diatribes between the two competing Keneysian and neoclassical theories, leaving no space for other ideas or for contamination from other disciplines, such as sociology and politics” (p.44).

Chapter three complements the picture by describing “the statistical drift of inequality studies”. Indeed, as a consequence of the absence of theory, the authors suggest that economics of inequality resorted instead to present factual observations and to design ever more sophisticated ways of summarising them (i.e. statistics and inequality measures). They review in details the landmark measures of inequality (Pareto’s alpha, Lorenz’s curve, Gini’s coefficient), highlighting their strength and weaknesses. For example, compared to the descriptive fitting of Pareto to a power law distribution, Lorenz introduced the idea of concentration of wealth/income with respect to the share of population holding it. “As Lorenz put it, the purpose of his 1905 article – apparently his only publication in a scientific journal – appeared to be rather humble: to discuss some techniques used thus far in distribution analysis, and to suggest ‘an additional one’ in order to ‘take account simultaneously of changes in wealth and changes in population’. In particular, Lorenz insisted on the benefits that a graphical representation of distributional data would offer” (p.51-2). By integrating over this curve to produce a bounded index, Gini popularised Lorenz’s curve and allowed for the scale- and population-independent comparison of spatio-temporal units with respect to inequality. “Contrary to Pareto’s outcome of a uniform distribution of wealth across countries and time, he found that total income distribution differs geographically” (p.53). The drawbacks of the Gini index are well-known (uni-dimensionality, low sensibility to extremes, non decomposability). The latter one was alleviated by Theil’s entropy index, which allows to measure “how much of the inequality is due to difference showed by the groups of observations in relation to each other and how much, conversely, is due to differences within each group of observations.” (p.55), distinguishing for example the within-country and between-country inequality. The presentation then turns to Kuznets’ theory and the inverted-U-shape curve that bears his name (although he never traced it apparently). The authors recall the principle of this theory: “During the process of economic development – that is, as the society as a whole comes richer – inequality rises, but eventually it reaches a plateau and starts to decrease while economic development proceeds” (p.61), its reliance on between-sectors processes (agriculture and industry in the original version) and how it might have been misinterpreted as an explanation for the differences in inequality between countries (non-ergodicity). The final developments detailed in chapter three regards Atkinson’s work of translating the Lorenz curve into welfare functions and vice versa and Sen’s introduction of the capabilities approach.

Chapter four dives into the relationships between inequality and globalisation. It starts by illustrating the relation with the phenomenon of international migrations: “the current Mediterranean migration underscores that migrations are a fundamental factor directly affecting and affected by inequality dynamics at the global level. People’s ability to migrate is not only an unmistakable sign that globalizing forces are at work; it is also one of the principal mechanisms for individuals to raise their standard of living and increase their position in the global income distribution” (p.73). The analysis is then split into within, between-country and global inequality. Within-country inequality is shown to have decreased after WWII, then reversed to increase again after the 1970s. “The downward trend of the Kuznets curve [in a number of countries] was due to a number of factors, some positive and some negative, such as the closing gap between rural and urban wages; the reduction in return on capital; destruction of capital; higher taxation, and inflation caused by the two world wars; and major political shifts in favor of inclusive and redistributive policies” (p.92). Since then, between-country (or international) inequality has increased and stagnated while population-weighted between-country (or global) inequality has decreased, especially thanks to the economic development of India and China. Thus, between-country is  becoming a less prominent contributor to the levels of global inequality (i.e. population-weighted between-country inequality). Therefore, to which family one is born is becoming more important than a few decades ago to explain their level of wealth and income, compared to which country they were born in (which explained the bulk of global inequality between WWII and 1980). To summarise “the combination of diminishing within-country inequality in large Asian countries and increasing within-country inequality in a number of rich countries, especially the United States, has important global consequences. The richest 1 per cent of any country’s population has obviously benefitted everywhere, taking an increasingly larger slice of the pie. Among the beneficiaries of this beneficiaries of this phenomenon, however, is also the emerging middle class in China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, where, of course, the middle class would be considered poor if compared in absolute terms with the middle class of Western economies. The great losers, in this global reshuffle, are those belonging to the lower middle class of rich countries, whose real incomes, in the last tweny-five years, have grown slowly or remained stagnant” (p.103).

In chapter five, the authors address the ‘open issue of inequality and democracy’. They recall the absence of univocal causal links between political equality and economic equality beyond the obvious: “the absence of political equality makes the issue of economic equality irrelevant” (p.109). However, the authors present arguments as to how economic inequality threatens democracy. For example “A substantial degree of economic inequality may corrupt political equality or slow the realization of its potential, even in a democratic regime. […] There is evidence that the rich have great influence on the behavior of elected officials while people in the bottom third of the income distribution seem to have no impact, and, in general, political leaders apprear to react to what middle- and upper-income citizens prefer.” (p.109-16). Economic inequality is shown to have negative consequences on other social features praised by democratic societies, such as health,  education opportunities, and intergenerational social mobility.

The ‘future of inequality’ concludes the book as a sixth chapter. It presents policies aimed at reducting inequality at different scales, based on four arguments: “first, inequality, though present in nature, is not inevitable in human societies. Second, values, ideologies, and institutions play an fundamental role in how and to what extent a society adopts policies that curb inequality. Third, excessive inequality is socially disruptive and lowers the standard of living of all members of a community, including the well-off. Fourth, policies are needed to redress inequality [… because] the market alone is unable to address complex social issues like inequality” (p.130). To curb within-  ‘advanced’ country inequality, the authors recommend fiscal policies (inc. tax rates, brackets and thresholds), corporate institutional reforms (transparency of financial operations, anti-trust legislation, minimum wages, social security), educational policies (in touch with the current technological needs) and social mobility programs. To curb within- ‘developing’ country inequality, the authors advocate for economic, social and institutional reforms, yet “gradualist and selective reforms, consensus building, the creation of an institutional infrastructure (which cannot happen overnight), phased restructuring, room for policy latitude – in sum, a sensitivity to the dynamics of change and transition – are equally as important if not more important” (p.140). To curb between-country inequality, they push for growth (to help alleviate international poverty) and between-country redistribution through international aid and a substantial contribution of rich countries towards ecological sustainability.

 


 

As Nobel laureate Jan Tingergen noticed more than fifty years ago, the statistical description of income distribution was much more advanced than its economic interpretation. […] Today the situation is not substantially different, notwithstanding a flourishing new body of research. Some ‘building blocks’ – such as skill-based technical progress, human capital formation, and wealth accumulation – are recognized as among the main mechnisms operating on economic inequality, but a complehensive theory is still lacking” (p.60). Despite this brief in-passing note of the authors about building block mechanisms, I have not found this book to provide a comprehensive account of the dynamics of inequality. Similarly, despite some elements in the appendix, I found that the authors brushed aside the data question very quickly. However, what type of data is available, curated and used to apply the measures of inequality is a strong determinant of the quality of resulting analysis (especially when increasing/decreasing trends are not very stark). When crude and ‘dirty’ data is thrown at slick and sophisticated statistical apparatuses, unfortunately it tends to produce crude and ‘dirty’ rather than slick and sophisticated results. A deeper inquiry around data sources and quality could have also raised some questions about collection boundaries and the meaning of expressing inequality only in terms of between- and within-country. Inter- regional, continental, urban, local inequality are almost absent in economics of inequality, and potentially so because of the dominant use national accounts data (i.e. individual data aggregated at the state level). Survey data or other aggregations of individual data could offer a renewed vision of the state of inequality in the world, distinguishing the class (within-) and place (between-) terms for different types of spaces (and accessibility between them).

All in all, this small book does a good job at providing a thorough summary of the main contributions to economics of inequality, of statistics and scales involved, on policies proposed to curb inequality. It constitues a perfect introduction to the subject and points to a diversity of potential paths to explore further.

 

Here I share the type of file I use to document my readings and book reviews. It is composed of citations from the book which I considered important while reading.

Another review of this book has been published in the Journal of Economics.


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